Thursday, July 5, 2018

Parashat Pinehas: Puzzles & Mysteries

Puzzles & Mysteries
A Message for Parashat Pinehas 2017
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The Torah’s description of Pinehas’s courageous act of zealotry at the end of Parashat Balak and his subsequent reward at the beginning of Pinehas begs the question: Why him? Where were his great-uncle Moshe, father Elazar, uncle Itamar, seventy zekenim, Yehoshua and the other heads of tribes at this time? Pinehas was a person who was until now unpronounced in the general narrative of the Torah. Why did he emerge as the hero?

I believe that the simplest answer is that an appropriate act of zealotry of this caliber requires the performer to possess a unique level of courageousness and self-conviction. Pinehas, in contrast to the other distinguished leaders of the nation, was seemingly imbued with those inborn character traits, and was thus the single person able to act during the time of crisis.

Rashi, however, presented a different approach to this question. Citing from the Hakhamim, he described Pinehas as “seeing the act and recalling the halakhah.” He wrote that Pinehas turned to Moshe during the critical moment of sin and reminded him of a past lesson that they had learned together – “a person who commits adultery with an Armenian may be killed by zealots.” Moshe responded to Pinehas that since it was he that recalled the halakhah he too should commit the deed.[1] According to this approach, Pinehas’s uniqueness lay not in his brave reaction, but in his scholarship – or more specifically, the practical application of his scholarship. What caused the Hakhamim to sense a level of knowledge that was greater in Pinehas than in any of the surrounding leaders?

The question is strengthened when accounting for the Hakhamim’s tradition regarding the reception and transmission of the Torah. They described that when the Torah was first being taught, God would initially instruct Moshe. Aharon would then enter the room and Moshe would repeat the laws to him. Aharon would then sit next to Moshe as Moshe repeated the laws again to Elazar and Itamar, who then joined their father in listening to a third repetition to the seventy zekenim and a fourth to the rest of the nation.[2] It would seem reasonable, then, that each of these people would precede Pinehas in measure of Torah scholarship – as they were the primary receivers and participants in the transmission of the mesorah. Why was Pinehas the only one to recall the law?
Perhaps the Hakhamim were hinting at a fundamental lesson regarding the attainment of knowledge, or more specifically – knowledge of Torah.
* * * *
Hakham Ovadia Yosef z”l’ began his formal rabbinic career as a teacher and judge in Cairo, Egypt. His biographers described that period as one that was consumed by constant tension and controversy. Hakham Ovadia later explained that the extreme difficulties that he underwent during that period led to his premature departure from Egypt, following only two years of service there. Ironically, however, many scholars sense in his writings from those two years the burgeoning of his greatness. The creative beginnings of his principles in pesak and their most lucid application in teshuvot were set forth by him at that time.[3] The very period of Hakham Ovadia’s life which ostensibly left the least time for uninterrupted study was surprisingly the one that bore the most fruit in his output of Torah thought.

R. Yisrael Meir HaKohen z”l, known as “the Hafess Hayim,” who was the author of one of the most influential works of halakhah in the past century (Mishnah Berurah), owned less than forty sefarim.[4] R. Hayim Soloveitchik z”l, the father of the famous “Brisker” school of Talmud analysis never owned a full set of Talmud.[5] And R. Yosef Rosen z”l, known as “the Rogatchover,” who was arguably the most brilliant rabbinic mind of the 20th century, had only a small bookshelf and very few sefarim that he would use on a consistent basis.[6]

The conventional perspective regarding the lives and circumstances of each of these great individuals is that they were able to accomplish their respective feats in spite of the severe odds set out against them. I wonder, however, if there is a different explanation. Perhaps the common thread that runs through the experiences of each of these rabbis – intellectual growth through a narrow medium – actually proves a rule instead of defying one.
* * * *
National security expert Gregory Treverton famously distinguished between puzzles and mysteries. He explained that even when we have difficulty solving a crossword puzzle, there is still a sense of satisfaction that accompanies the frustration. That feeling stems from the knowledge that though you can’t find the right answer, you are aware that one exists. A mystery, however, offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors – both known and unknown. Treverton explained that we approach a mystery without the hope of “answering it,” but rather of “framing it.” We seek to identify the critical factors and then apply some sense of how they have interacted in the past and how they might interact in the future.

Treverton explained, for example, that the question of whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed nuclear or chemical weapons seemed like a quintessential puzzle, and it was in fact treated that way by the U.S intelligence. And they got it wrong. He wondered, however, about what would have happened if they had instead treated it as a mystery. The U.S. intelligence would then have turned away from the technical details, and focused instead on Saddam’s thinking. That could, in turn, have raised for them the appropriate thoughts of: “Could Saddam be more afraid of his local enemies than he is of the United States? Could that lead him to boast that he had weapons he really didn’t have?”[7]

Malcolm Gladwell explained the ironic reality of mystery-solving: “Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information, but that we have too much.”[8] Indeed, researchers have found that our creative capacity consistently diminishes as we age. They suggested that this is because as we grow older we amass more and more knowledge, which leads us to ignore the potential evidence that contradicts what we already think.[9]

The great twentieth century artist Alberto Giacometti described a single moment when the people around him suddenly stopped seeming like people and became temporarily unrecognizable. He felt that this was a central event in his life, as precisely when the most familiar of objects became strange to him was he able to see and grasp them properly for the first time.[10] R. Yohanan may have hinted at this fact when he stated, “Since the day the Mikdash was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to madmen and young children.”[11] The lack of conventional wisdom and self-consciousness shared by madmen and children is their ironic enabler to conceiving fundamental insights akin to prophecy.[12]
* * * *
Although many of us have a will to engage in serious talmud Torah, we are often dissuaded from doing so by our own claims that “We just don’t have the time for it,” and “How much could we possibly attain in the little time that we have?” The ironic truth regarding Torah knowledge, however, is that the quantity amassed oftentimes has no bearings upon the answers derived. This reality is reflected in the fact that the Talmud rarely provides “answers” to the questions it poses, preferring instead a structured analysis of its theorems and logic. In short: Proper engagement in talmud Torah exists more as a mystery than as a puzzle.

It was for this reason that specifically Pinehas, who had probably amassed less “Torah data” than his many superiors, could solve the mystery of how to act during a time of uncertainty. Perhaps the limited mediums for amassing Torah data that were presented to the various gedolei Torah whom we enumerated above was the improbable tool that aided their systematic approach and understanding, as well.

Realizing that the key to unlocking the secrets of the Torah lies not in the quantity of time studied or data amassed but rather in an appropriate structure and approach must shift our mindsets. It is time that we realize that we can – and must – grow in our personal pursuits of serious talmud Torah.

[1] Commentary of Rashi to Bemidbar 25:7, s.v. va-yar.
[2] Eruvin 54b.
[3] See Yaakov Sasson, Abir HaRo’im vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2012), pg. 219-220.
[4] As related by R. Moshe Shemuel Shapira, in his Zahav MiSheva vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2003), pg. 26. See, as well, R. Meir Soloveitchik z”l’s additional description in DeHazeetei LeRebbi Meir vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2018), pg. 208-9.
[5] Ibid.
[6] As reported by Dovber Schwartz, in his “The Gaon of Rogatchov: A Study in Abstraction,” Hakira, vol. 15 (Summer 2013), pg. 247.
[7] Gregory F. Treverton, “Risks and Riddles,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2007. Accessible at:
[8] Malcolm Gladwell, What the Dog Saw (New York, NY, 2009), pg. 153-4.
[9] Alison Gopnik and Tom Griffiths, “What Happens to Creativity as We Age?” The New York Times, Aug. 19, 2017. Accessible at:
[10] Cited by David Gelernter in Judaism: A Way of Being (New Haven, CT, 2009), pg. 79.
[11] Bava Batra 12b.
[12] This explanation was suggested by Moshe Koppel, in his Meta-Halakhah: Logic, Intuition, and the Unfolding of Jewish Law (Lanham, MD, 1997), pg. 53-4.