black and white engraving -- a woman kneels before Moses begging
The Daughters of Zelophehad request the inheritance that is their due, seen in this illustration from "Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us" by Charles Foster, 1897

The lesson in an abhorrent biblical murder

Numbers 25:10−30:1
1 Kings 18:46-19:21

I love living near the beach. Give me a strip of sand long enough to take a walk on, and some gentle, predictable waves and I’m happy.

But I know that for others, summer fun at the beach is just too boring, too sunny or too sandy. Others prefer to spend their days out and about, quenching a desire for adventure that is not found in a lounge chair.

I have a friend who has always loved theme parks. She gets a kick out of trying new roller coasters, enjoying each of the surprising new twists and turns. She told me once that she loves that breathless feeling of her stomach dropping as the car goes down a big hill.

Not surprisingly, I hate that. And I’m not alone. There are many of us who prefer to anticipate ups and downs, to control the twists and turns we take as best as we can.

Opening up to this week’s Torah portion feels a bit like stepping onto a roller coaster after a week at the beach. We grow accustomed to reading law after law, story after story as the Israelites slog their way through the desert. And this week, Parashat Pinchas offers us something completely different.

We open with the story of Pinchas, an Israelite zealot who brutally murders an Israelite man and Midianite woman who are in the midst of a passionate moment.

This is flabbergasting for the modern reader, especially for those who embrace and uphold the contributions of our non-Jewish community members. What’s most concerning is that God rewards Pinchas’ violent behavior. This is one of those stories in the Torah that can easily alienate the modern reader.

Our parashah continues. Just one chapter later is a completely different event. In a rare feminist victory, the daughters of Zelophehad appeal to Moses for ownership over their late father’s land. They become the first women to own property in the Torah. In the midst of our mostly male-centered traditional text, these verses become a progressive prooftext of our tradition.

When we are reading Torah, our emotions are at the mercy of the message. We go where the portion of the week takes us, in the order that it is given. Regardless of our preference, we ride out the jolts, twists and upside-down backwards spirals of back-to-back problems and progress.

But like the enthusiast who rides Space Mountain over and over all day long, we learn something as we read Torah over again each year. When we return to Pinchas next year, the highs and lows will still be there. But each time we round that turn we have a better sense of which twist is coming next. And as we are less shocked each year, we are better able to learn from it.

Beyond the atrocity of Pinchas’ actions are bigger questions and conversations about our actions and values. After we praise the victories of the daughters of Zelophehad, we look for ways to take a stand, to be courageous, to take hold of our own life.

As Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag famously reflected on the nature of Torah, we must “turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.”

What I like best about a long walk on the beach is the way that it helps me to clear my head, to see more distinctly something about myself or my surroundings that I’ve never seen before. By returning to the familiar, we discover something new … and by returning to something “new,” it becomes familiar.

Perhaps if we “beach people” were ever to give roller coasters another chance, we might find that once we stopped dreading the topsy and the turvy, the crashing hills can have the same effect as the crashing waves.

And maybe if those roller-coaster people spent an afternoon strolling up and down the shore, they could find that each step is its own small adventure.

And for all of us, when we unroll the Torah and immerse ourselves in these stories — both again and for the first time — we find that there is a core of learning waiting to be discovered, even in the most challenging, obsolete and seemingly unusual texts.

It is both our respite and our adventure to uncover it.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].