Pinchas: Fairness

June 27, 2013 at 9:26 am | Posted in Pinchas | 1 Comment

Children passionately want life to be fair. For the sake of fairness, they can even be persuaded to share their possessions. But if a young child is the victim of unfairness, prepare for a tantrum.

Adults know that life is not fair. People in power are biased, and bad luck happens. Yet most of us still feel bitter when we do all the right things, and still get the short end of the stick.

When is the distribution of good things “fair”?  Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives two possible answers: when the distributor is impartial, i.e. free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism; and when everyone is given their due according to established rules.

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, looks ahead to how the land of Canaan will be distributed after the Israelites have conquered it and driven off the Canaanites. The question of fairness to the Canaanites never comes up in the Torah. Over and over again, from the book of Genesis/Bereishit through the conquest of the land in the book of Joshua, we read that God is giving this land to the children of Israel. What God wants trumps any human notion of fairness. Although later Jewish writings paint the Canaanites as evil perverts, the only objection to Canaanites in the Torah itself is that they worship different gods.

In this week’s Torah portion, God prescribes how the land the Israelites are about to conquer should be divided among themselves. The first step is to take a census of men aged 20 and older. The census serves both as a mustering of eligible fighters for the upcoming conquest, and as a count of the households that will own plots of land once Canaan has been conquered.

The census of adult men raises two questions: What about women? And why should the land be divided according to the population that is about to cross the Jordan, rather than the previous generation, or the next generation? The Torah addresses these issues in the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, which begins in the portion Pinchas and resumes in the portion Masey. I plan to examine that two-part story in next week’s blog post.

Right or wrong, the census of Israelite men clearly defines the in-group for the distribution of land. The next step is to divide the land fairly among the tribes of the in-group.

This is the census of the sons of  Israel: 601,730. Then God spoke to Moses, saying: “For these the land shall be divided as a nachal, by the account of names. The abundant [tribe] will have an abundant nachal, and the scanty [tribe] will have a scanty nachal; each one shall be given its nachal according to the bidding of the census. Yet the land shall be divided according to the bidding of a lottery; nachal [will be assigned] to the names of the tribes of their fathers.  According to the bidding of the lottery you shall divide [land] among the abundant [tribes] and the scanty [tribes], giving each its nachal.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 25:51-55)

nachal (נָחַל)=a permanent possession to pass on as an inheritance; a hereditary land-holding.

In other words, each tribe will get a territory proportionate to the number of adult men in the tribe, and tribes will be matched with territories through a lottery. This passage goes out of its way to achieve fairness. The distribution of the land among the tribes of Israel appears to be fair both because the territories are divided according to the population of the in-group, and because a lottery is used to match each tribe with its territory. (After that, the leaders of each tribe are to use a similar process to allocate land to individual clans and households.)

According to the Talmud Bavli, tractate Bava Batra 121b-122a, every man in the census will end up with his own plot of land, and all the plots will be equal—not in size, but in value. Where the land is more fertile, the plots will be smaller. This seems fair because each member of the in-group will get his due.

To make sure this distribution is carried out without favoritism, God also calls for a lottery to match each territory with its tribe. Later in the Hebrew Bible, lotteries express the will of God, but here a lottery might be merely a randomizing mechanism, as it is today. The choice is left up to blind chance rather than a human decision. A lottery seems to meet the dictionary definition of fairness as impartial distribution, free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism.

But there is a catch. Each tribe must get a territory whose total value matches its total count of adult males. And the tribes are different sizes. The tribe with the largest head-count is Yehudah (Judah in English), with a total of 76,500 men. The smallest is Shimon (Simeon in English) with a total of 22,200. In a truly random lottery, the high priest might draw the name Yehudah the same time as the description of a territory that could only support Shimon. Thus the leaders cannot conduct a random lottery and still give each tribe land according to its head-count. Either the land will not be not distributed equally, or the lottery will be rigged.

The Talmud explained that when the lottery took place, the high priest Elazar already knew which tribe would be matched with which territory, because he was supported by the ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit of God. First he would predict the tribe and its territory. Then he would shake the urn of tribe names and pick one, and shake the urn of land boundaries and pick one. Every time, the two lots matched his prediction (Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 122a). In other words, the whole lottery was predetermined by God.

Thus God’s orders for land distribution are fair only for the group counted in the census, and only if God is impartial and does not play favorites. Is God fair?

God wears a human face in the Torah; “He” is an anthropomorphic character who feels emotions such as regret (for creating this world) and rage (every time the Israelites disobey him). Nevertheless, God is the creator of the universe, far greater than any other gods, if they even exist. Sometimes this God character is benevolent. When God tells Moses “His” 13 attributes in Exodus/Shemot 34:6, the list begins with compassion, grace, patience, abundant kindness, and truth. Fairness is not mentioned.

And it is hard to attribute fairness to the god who saves Noah’s family but drowns the rest of the world, including innocent children; or to the god who routinely wipes out thousands of Israelites with plagues that make no distinction between the innocent and the guilty.

Some people still assume that the God character in the Torah is the same being as the theologian’s omnipotent all-benevolent God, and that both are the same as God the Unknowable. After all, the three versions of God all have the same name. It is hard for these people to believe that life is unfair. If God is human enough to care about fairness, and God runs everything in the universe, then why does bad luck strike some people and not others? Surely the unlucky must deserve a worse deal than their luckier neighbors. Otherwise, God would be unfair.

This confusion about God led some Jews to believe that they must have deserved the Holocaust; if only they had been more observant, God would have intervened to prevent it. During the current long recession, some Americans who lose their houses and jobs blame themselves for not working hard enough, or for making the wrong decisions.  It is easier for them to believe they are undeserving than to believe that either God or the American system is unfair.

Other people embrace the reality that life is not fair, and campaign to change the system to make it more fair. Still others view the desire for fairness as childish, and focus on moral values they find less simplistic.

Life is not fair.  What do you want to do about it?

Tetzaveh: Divining

March 1, 2012 at 11:40 am | Posted in Pinchas, Samuel 1, Tetzaveh | Leave a comment

What should I do?

Usually human beings carry on with their habitual behavior, but sometimes we have to make a deliberate decision.  And we do not know whether a particular choice will lead to good or evil, or to happiness or disaster.  If only we knew ahead of time!

The longing for foreknowledge has been with us for millennia.  Most cultures have had their own methods of divination, of gaining knowledge that is normally outside the human realm.

High priest’s vestments, artist unknown

In the Hebrew Bible, leaders and kings ask the high priest to consult the urim and tumim tucked into his breast-pouch. These mysterious items are introduced in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (“You shall command”), but we do not learn their purpose until the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, when God tells Moses what Joshua must do after Moses has died. Since Joshua, unlike Moses, cannot hear God directly, he must ask the high priest for divination when he needs to decide whether to go out to battle:

He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, and ask him for the ruling of the urim before God. (Numbers 27:21)

urim (אוּרִים) = firelight? illumination?

But the book of Joshua never refers to the urim. The only time the Torah says someone actually consults them is in the first book of Samuel:

And Saul inquired of God, but God did not answer him, either with dreams or with urim or with prophets.  (1 Samuel 28:6)

Several other times in that book both Saul and David “inquire of God” in the presence of a priest, and when David receive yes/no answers, we can assume the answers are indicated by the urim.  But no description is given.

This week’s Torah portion describes everything else the high priest wears, from his headband to his underpants. Over his sky-blue robe, the priest must wear an eifod, a kind of tabard with shoulder-straps and sewn-in ties at the waist.  A chosen, a square pouch, will hang from the shoulder-straps of the eifod, secured on the high priest’s breast.  This breast-pouch will be folded at the bottom, and twelve gems will be set into the front.  Each gem will be engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel.

And into the breast-pouch of the law you will place the urim and the tumim; and they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God, and Aaron will carry the law of  the children of Israel over his heart before God constantly.  (Exodus/Shemot 28:30)

tumim (תֻּמִּים) = ? (a noun probably based on the adjective tamim, תָּמִים = whole, flawless, blameless.)

Obviously a high priest could not carry firelight and wholeness in a pouch on his chest; the names of the actual items are symbolic.  But what do they mean?  Throughout the book of Isaiah, urim means “fires” or “firelight”, not an object worn by a high priest.  In Ezekiel, ur is a destroying fire.  Everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, the word urim refers to the item worn by the high priest.

Traditional commentary says the word urim means light, illumination, clarity, because it has the same root letters as the word or = light. Some modern language scholars speculate that urim is derived from nei-arim (נֵאָרִים) = cursed, inflicted with a curs. In that case, urim and tumim would mean “cursed” and “blameless”. In other words, one object indicates a bad outcome and the other indicates a good one.

Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) suggested that the two words urim and tummim were written on a single piece of parchment, and the high priest would look down through the open top of his breast-pouch to see which word was facing up.

In the Talmud tractate Yoma 73b, the rabbis seem to use the phrase “urim and tumim” interchangeably with the phrase “breast-pouch of the law”.   Some speculated that the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the urim and tumim, and the letters lit up or moved around to create an oracular message.  Others said that the urim and tumim caused the stones on the front of the breast-pouch to light up, and the message could be deciphered from the pattern of flashing lights.  The important thing was that both the person with the question and the high priest had to direct their minds toward God.


Some passages in the Torah appear to forbid using any kind of divination, along with any other kind of magic.  For example:

No one must be found among you who sacrifices his son or his daughter in the fire, or who reads omens, a cloud-conjurer or a diviner, or a sorcerer; or a charm-binder, or a medium who consults ghosts or a medium who possesses a familiar spirit, or who questions the dead.  For anyone who does these is an abomination of God, and on account of these abominations, God, your god, is dispossessing them before you.  You shall be whole with God, your god.   (Deuteronomy/Devarim 18:10-13)

Here Moses is banning all the divination practices of the people surrounding the Israelites.  In other places, the Torah approves of a few practices for getting a bit of divine knowledge.

The two most common ways that God shares foreknowledge with humans is through dreams, and through communication with prophets.  In the absence of dreams or prophetic utterances, a person can take the initiative by casting lots, or by consulting the high priest’s urim and tumim.


When this week’s Torah portion introduces the urim and tumim, it says “they will be over the heart of Aaron when he comes before God”—like the gems representing twelve tribes of Israel.  Maybe the primary purpose of the urim and tumim is not to enable divination, but to keep light and wholeness in the high priest’s awareness whenever he approaches God.

Even today, people who want to make the right decision resort to dubious divination methods.  Instead of reading omens in entrails or conjuring clouds, they flip a coin, or buy something from a New Age shop, or consult a medium who channels the spirit of a dead person.  It is hard to accept that we cannot have foreknowledge, only good guesses.

Yet we can answer the question “What should I do?” without knowing the outcome of our choice.  And when our intuitions are not clear, we can use approaches similar to the kind of “divination” the Torah approves of.  Dreams still help by connecting us with hidden parts of ourselves that are connected with the divine.  And we can improve our conscious thought by keeping certain ideas in our awareness, carrying them upon our hearts like high priests.   We can consciously stay in touch with urim, the light shed by the fire of our passions; tumim, the continual effort to complete ourselves and become whole; and on the outside, the gemstones of our own tribes, our own families, friends, and communities.

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