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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-26:4) – The Rabbis offer a hidden critique

>I have long been troubled by the end of the film: ‘Bend it like Beckham’. Throughout the film there are numerous storylines about the challenges of an Indian girl playing football in England. There is a clash of cultures between the dominant British culture, which accepts a girl playing football, and an Indian family who have a specific view of what the women should be doing. Jess, the star of the film is the girl caught between her wishes to play football, and her parents’ desire for her to conform to a certain set of expectations. Alongside this problem, Jess also has a very complicated relationship with her non-Indian coach; fearing her parents’ response if she ever brought home a non-Indian boyfriend. At the very end of the film, as she is about to fly away, she kisses the coach, and tells him that they will find a way to make it work.

The film offers the romantic, Hollywood ending, as the characters appear destined to find a way to make their interfaith relationship work – and there is something so artificial about it. This girl, who has struggled about how her Indian identity should influence her life, ends up appearing to leave it behind completely in her pursuit of a football career, and in her relationship with the coach. The complexity, the difficulty of the situation is lost in the search for the ‘right ending’.

Pinchas, for whom this week’s Torah portion is named, offers one way of dealing with interfaith relationships (one which is highly problematic). At the end of last week there was a developing problem of Israelite men entering into relationships with Moabite women. Pinchas took matters into his own hands and drove a spear through Zimri, an Israelite prince, and Cosbi, a Midianite woman (Numbers 25:7-9). This week, Pinchas is praised for his actions by God: ‘he has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them’ (Numbers 25:11). He also receives the honour of having a Torah portion named after him.

How do we make sense of this? And how do we understand this act of violence and the apparent praise it appears to receive from God? On a basic reading the story of Pinchas appears as a very clear statement against intermarriage, or even interfaith relationships. We have to engage with these difficult stories in our sacred texts.

The break between the Torah portions of Balak and Pinchas is particularly peculiar. Last week’s Torah portion could easily have finished with the verse: ‘And Balaam rose up, and went and returned to his place; and Balak also went his way’ (Numbers 24:25). As a Torah portion it would have perfectly encapsulated the story of Balak, beginning and ending with it. Instead, an additional ten verses were included so that we finished by reading about Pinchas’ murder of Cosbi and Zimri.

I would suggest that when the Rabbis were dividing the Torah into portions, they were also uncomfortable with this story, and the message it contains. They therefore chose to add this difficult story onto the end of a Torah portion all about Balak, so that it would essentially be lost at the end. On another level, it means that God’s praise for Pinchas is read out of context, and separated from the unpleasant action, which heralded it. The Rabbis divided the Torah so that we might forget the terrible actions of Pinchas when we read about God’s praise for him.

However, we are still left with the problem that Pinchas receives the honour of having a Torah portion named after him. In the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar) the other two men to have had a Torah portion named after them are Korach and Balak. Neither are particularly positive figures. Korach was swallowed up by the earth after attempting a rebellion against Moses’ leadership, and Balak was the Moabite king who feared the Israelites and tried to have them cursed. When Pinchas has a Torah portion, in Numbers, named after him, it appears that this is part of a rabbinic critique, both of him and his actions, placing him alongside Korach and Balak.

This is not the Hollywood ending of ‘Bend it like Beckham’, but the Rabbis ensured that God’s words were not the final word in the story of Pinchas, when we dig deeper we find a hidden critique to which we can relate.

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