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Parshat Pinchas: On conflict resolution, the problem of polarisation and 17 B’Tamuz

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Today we live in a world riddled by conflict on the global, national and communal level. The most pressing question for contemporary society is not how to resolve conflict, because the very nature of society means there will always be conflicting interests. The bigger and more urgent question is how to navigate conflict. What are the tools we use to conflict with each other? How do we engage in argument? How do we manage disparate views and interests? This question does not see the world in binary terms – conflict is bad, harmonious relations is good. Instead, is takes a more nuanced stance, accepting conflict as an inherent and perhaps even necessary ingredient of society building, but asking how we remain tied to the common good even when our views may not match those of our fellow citizens. I believe our Parsha addresses this dilemma. As I have mentioned before, Sefer Bamidbar is a book that addresses many issues allied to society building – conflict managements is one such issue.

At the end of our Parsha we have a moving plea to Moshe by five sisters whose father Zelofchad, has died but left no sons to inherit his portion in Israel. They remind Moshe that their father was not part of the Korach rebellion. Moshe turns to God who tells him that the daughters should inherit the land. It is not by chance the Torah reminds us here of Korach rebellion. I want to suggest that this narrative stands as a subversive sequel to Korach's rebellion. There is a common thread that runs through the two stories. Both are about people coming to challenge the status quo, with egalitarian arguments. Both stories feature the 'dissenter' coming before all the people and both feature a challenge to Moshe personally. However, it is in the difference between the two that the message lies. After The daughters of Zelofchad present their proposition, Moshe turns to God who tells him 'כן בנות צלפחד דברת' which is translated as 'The daughters of Zelofchad speak correctly'. I want to translate it literally - 'Yes, the daughters of Zelofchad speak....and hence shall inherit the land'. What God says to Moshe is that these women have learnt the significance of speech. They understand what it is to truly 'speak', they engage in a true face to face encounter. They do not come to argue for the sake of argument, but rather for the sake of their father's legacy. The midrash tells us that they were learned women, they had analysed, thought, and dissected the idea in their heads and were convinced of the veracity of their plea. But equally, they were willing to listen to Moshe and God and accept whatever decree they would receive. Moreover, unlike Korach who is described as ויקומו - coming up against Moshe, they are described as ותקרבנה- they came close/drew near to Moshe. The way in which they presented their argument was what made all the difference. Though they stood their ground and remained true to their principles, they also recognised the imperative of making space for the other, and surrendering to Divine authority. It reminds me of a beautiful line from one of Israel's most famous poets Yehuda Amichai who writes:

מן המקום שבו אנו צודקים לא יצמחו לעולם פרחים באביב

From the place in which we are correct

Never will grow

Flowers in the spring

In a world of soundbites, social media, polarisation it is very hard to know HOW to argue; HOW to stick to your principles without denigrating another who does not necessarily think like you. Or in other words, how to be opinionated without being arrogant. How to hold humility. The daughters of Zelofachad exemplify this balance. Their plea extends the parochial needs of the ‘I’, their petition is made with strength and humility and their motives come from a place of yirat shamayim, a place from which they understand that to defer to a higher authority does not necessarily mean one has been defeated.

In my mind their narrative is paradigmatical of the second generation. A people who a generation earlier only knew how to cry, moan, complain and see only their own immediate needs and desires have finally learnt to speak and see beyond themselves. The daughters of Zelofchad have taught us some fundamental lessons for building a society. We must pursue constructive and productive arguments through an I-Thou encounter that makes space for others unlike ourselves from whom we grow and are enriched. We must constantly question our motives, are they pure? Are they true to ourselves and God? Are the genuinely in-line with the Divine task we have been given? And do they make space for the other?

At this time of the year, when we are thinking about the destruction of the Temples and שנאת חינם the history of hatred between Jews, that tragically we are seeing arise once again in our generation we would do well to listen carefully to the narrative in this weeks parsha and hear the eternal words of Rav Kook whose beauty and truth echo through all the generations:

כי הבניין יבנה מחלקים שונים, והאמת של אור העולם תבנה מצדדים שונים, וכל השיטות יתבררו, ואלו ואלו דברי אלוהים חיים, מדרכי העבודה והחינוך השונים [...] שבזה יתישרו הדברים ולא יהיו סותרים זה את זה. וריבוי הדעות שבא על ידי השתנות הנפשות. דווקא הוא מעשיר את החוכמה וגורם להרחבתה ויוכר שאי אפשר היה לבנין השלום שיבנה אלא על ידי כל אותן ההשפעות הנראות כמנצחות זו את זו .

The Temple will be built from many different parts and the truth of the worldly light will be built from different perspectives, and all the opinions will be made clear, and 'these and these are the words of the Living God', the differing paths of education and worship will come together, joining things that will not contradict each other. The multiplicity of opinions that come through the diversity of souls are what enriches wisdom and causes a broadening and understanding that without which we could not build peacefully, it will be built through the influences that seems to defeat each other. (From the Siddur of Rav Kook 'Olot Haraya' page 330)

May we be deserving of the Temple being rebuilt speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom

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