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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Pinchas

Parashat Pinchas

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Pinchas, which is the Hebrew name for Phinehas. This Torah portion begins by tracing the lineage of Pinchas through his father’s line, stating: “Phinehas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohen.” (25:11). Rashi explains this is done to vindicate Phinehas for his killing of a Jewish man and a Midianite woman (who was said to be the daughter of a prince),[1] and to uphold his true intentions. Phinehas killed two important people, and the tribes felt that he acted disrespectfully by not acting entirely out of moral necessity – that he caved into an aspect of himself that was unsavory. Rashi explains that: “Scripture traces his lineage to Aaron because the tribes ridiculed him, saying, ‘Have you seen the descendant of Putiel, who’s mother’s father fattened calves for idol worship, and yet he killed a leader of one of the tribes of Israel?’”[2] Putiel was a descendant of Jethro, an idol worshiper, and this was a lineage that the tribes used to try and discredit Phinehas. But, as Rashi indicates, the Torah traces the ancestry of Phinehas through his father’s side (which is, to say, his righteous side) to indicate that his intentions were pure. The man and the woman who were engaging in illicit sexual activity, in proximity to the Tent of Meeting, was indicative of a type of behavior that had caused a plague. At the time, a lust for immoral pleasure had infiltrated the Jewish camp, and the consequential plague had devastated the Jewish people – 24,000 people died.[3] But this parashah is less about the zealousness of Phinehas, and more about our own critique of forms of action that can instigate positive change. It’s easy to read this Torah portion from the vantage point of idolatry and the need to eradicate immoral behavior. But our attempts to find faults with those who seek to change the world, and better it, says more about our own thinking than the actual deeds of others.

There are many movements throughout the world that are demanding serious action with regards to climate change. But, simultaneously, there are ideological factions that are seeking to discredit climate change science and trivialize the efforts being made by communities that are working to unite and mobilize. There is a colloquial term known as ‘green-shaming’ which, in essence, encapsulates a theme of this parashah. It is impossible to know what someone’s true intentions are – we see this with Phinehas and the tribal leaders that questioned whether or not he was actually doing a good deed. The opening verses of this Torah portion address the issue and end any confusion – Phinehas halts a plague and is granted G-d’s covenant of peace by being made a kohen. But Chaim Miller, in his Gutnick Chumash, highlights a deeper question: “Where does the desire come from to find fault in people who are doing something good?”[4] In today’s world, within the context of the ecological crisis, there are groups of people that are working tirelessly to mobilize change. Yet they are also being mocked, shamed, and ridiculed for addressing the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced. And the problem extends beyond those who are simply denying the science of climate change. A glaring example of this is Greta Thunberg – young people, all over the world, are taking to the streets and protesting for their future. Greta has been instrumental in taking the initiative to stand up for her generation and construct a voice for environmental transformation. But the media has ripped her to shreds on occasion, and with this we must ask: Why must some people put down the good deeds of another? Is it pride? Is it arrogance? Is it an awareness of our own faults and laziness? Is this where we get the phrase ‘misery loves company’?

There is an important theological nuance to highlight about the complaint of the tribes. Rashi explains that idolatry is an ideological mistake that cannot be inherited. For this reason, the tribes stressed that Yitro “had a cruel, sadistic nature in that he fattened cows only in order to slaughter them.”[5] The implication is that he abused animals and that this was a disposition that could be inherited – that Phinehas inherited this cruel disposition, which he crudely actualized for his own pleasure. I read a book this past week, Johnathan Safran Foer’s latest work We Are The Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. It followed his previous book, Eating Animals, where he details the terrible conditions and effects of factory farming. And so, much of We Are The Weather focused on the ideological and philosophical foundations of collective change, while also exploring a seemingly, simple idea: eat less meat. The contributions of animal agriculture to the ecological crisis are immense, ranging from 14.5 percent to 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.[6] The reasons for this wide range of percentages is something Jonathan explores, and he explains how and why the figure is closer to fifty. This makes animal agriculture a (if not the) leading cause of climate change – a reality that echoes the cruelty of Yitro, as we too are fattening cows in order to slaughter them. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91 percent of Amazonian deforestation – an enormous carbon sink.[7] The highest impact animal is beef, and our obsession with it is destroying ecosystems throughout the world. Before 1954, the indigenous people of Botswana remember such high densities of wildlife being present, that herds of animals so vast, stretching so far across the plains, took 3 to 4 days to cross them. Anthropologist and author James Suzman accredits the loss of this wildlife to the Botswanan government’s preoccupation with clearing land to grow beef for human consumption. This “love affair,”[8] as Suzman calls it, mirrors the cruel nature of Yitro and a tendency towards immoral behavior. In the same vein, Johnathan Safran Foer suggests saving your meat consumption for dinner. Eating a plant-based diet is the only high impact action that immediately addresses methane and nitrous oxide – the most urgently important greenhouse gases (the other high impact actions include avoiding air travel, living car-free, and having fewer children).[9] With this in mind, Parashat Pinchas teaches us about the importance of action, even in the face of uncertainty and a world of critics. It also shows us that sometimes we need to take matters into our own hands and follow our hearts when our intentions are pure and true.

In Rashi’s commentary to verse 6, at the end of Parashat Balak, he describes why everyone was weeping, rather than taking action, at Zimri’s terrible behavior (Zimri is the Jewish man Phinehas kills). Moshe had forgotten the law regarding one who publicly violates the Torah’s prohibition against cohabiting with a gentile.[10] And this was a devastating, even unimaginable, matter for the Jewish people. We read that “providence caused Moshe to forget” – another way to put it is that “G-d concealed the law…in order to reward Pinchas.”[11] This is a premise that sets us up for a wonderful moment in the Torah, whereby the daughters of Zelophehad argue for their right to inherit the Land. (27:1-11). This shows us that there can be a strong correlation between zealotry and social justice, or that zealotry can pave the way for greater social equality. Sometimes there are gaps in the Law where the Law is not self-evident. We have the ability to raise a concern when we bring that concern in accordance with keeping the Law, with knowing the Law, and wanting to express our own rights. This is, after all, a foundational tenant for the generation of the Talmud. We can keep this in mind as we take action into our own hands and seek to emphasize the critical role of positive action, as we work to better the world.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: The role of zealousness in action, ‘green shaming’ as a reflection of our own faults, and social justice


Foer, Jonathan Safran. We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. Penguin UK, 2019.

Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Suzman, James. Affluence without abundance: The disappearing world of the Bushmen. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2017.

Great Articles for Additional Reading

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.877 [2] Chaim, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1040 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.876 [4] Chaim, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1041 [5] Chaim, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1041 [6] Foer, We are the Weather, p.95-96 and appendix [7] Foer, We are the Weather, p.93 [8] Suzman, Affluence without abundance, p.153 [9] Foer, We are the Weather, p.99 [10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.875 [11] Chaim, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1040

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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