Pinhas: Childrens pitfalls remind parents of their own

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Numbers 25:10-30:1

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

All the elements of a soap opera are captured in the story of two young men.

The one called Zimri flaunted the moral code of his day by cohabiting with a Midianite woman. The one called Pinhas, for whom this week's Torah portion is named, was the grandson of Aaron and the grandnephew of Moses. As the first high priest, he consolidated levitical power into an elite priestly class known as the Kohanim.

Young, impetuous and driven by passion, Zimri and Pinhas clashed. Incensed by Zimri's relationship with the Midianite woman, Pinhas brutally murdered them both.

The text comments that Israel's ethical standard was upheld and a plague that had raged in the community was lifted. Thus, the biblical author justified Pinhas' violence by showing that it was rewarded by God.

The medieval midrash Pitaron Hatorah fictionalized interchanges between the mature Moses, the passion-filled Zimri and the fervent Pinhas. In this text, Moses reprimands Zimri for taking up with a Midianite woman. In response, Zimri questions the purity of Moses' reprimand by reminding him that Zipporah, Moses' wife, was a Midianite.

Moses discounts his action, saying that he married Zipporah before the Torah, which forbade such relationships, was given at Sinai. Zimri tersely replies, "When you seek to justify an action, you always rationalize."

The dialogue continues. Moses reprimands the headstrong Pinhas for taking the law into his own hands. Pinhas reminds Moses that he too was once young and brash, asking, "Who told you to kill an Egyptian taskmaster?"

Again, Moses offers the same argument: "That was before the Torah was given."

Pinhas, like Zimri, dismisses Moses, commenting, "When you want to justify an action, you always rationalize."

This collision between youth and experience is best summed up by Gershom Gorenberg: "If you don't side with Pinhas when you're 20, you have no spirit. If you still side with him years later…you have no sense."

Parents and children are no strangers to this kind of paradox. With maturity and wisdom, parents understand that the actions of their own younger years may well have been precipitous: Were they to live their lives over, they would not repeat their impetuous actions.

However, parents do not have the opportunity to live their lives over and youth does not have the benefit of the wisdom that comes from having experienced many things.

What parent has not been anguished or has not smiled upon seeing his children repeat words he said himself or actions he performed himself years ago?

Parents are frustrated because children cannot possibly understand the consequences of their own actions. When children make the same mistakes their parents made as youngsters, sometimes this draws everyone in the family closer — just as becoming a parent can make an individual feel closer to his own mother and father,

This moment of truth is captured in the words of Henry Ward Beecher: "We never know the love of the parent till we become parents ourselves. When we first bend over the cradle of our own child, God throws back the temple door, and reveals to us the sacredness and mystery of father's and mother's love to ourselves."

To look backward and forward, to understand and be sympathetic toward both our children and our parents at the same moment, is an extraordinary vantage point. Standing at the crossroads of time, we see into the past and future at the same instant.

Conflicted parents are often overcome with tears and laughter when they remember the pitfalls of their own young days and suddenly see their own parents as reasonable human beings. Each generation rebels only to grow toward understanding its parents' wisdom, a truth captured in this anonymous poem:

"When I was young I heard a song./One song I heard, no others./I learned the words and sang along;/The song, it was my mother's./She never told me how to sing./ She never told me why./She simply sang the song she'd heard/ when she was young as I./Some lines were repeated…/And some of them were wise./They were mommy's Bible./They were mommy's blueprint/They were mommy's comfort./But some of them were lies./I often write my own songs now./But more than now and then,/I find a voice inside me/singing that song again."