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Wordless Lessons

Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein

July 12, 2001 | 8:00 pm

The proverbial apple may not fall far from the tree. Often, though, the question is: which tree?

The Torah portion opens by tracing Pinchas' lineage back to his paternal grandfather, Moses' brother, Aaron. Pinchas, it will be recalled from last week's reading, dramatically put an end to Israel's calamitous flirtation with Moabite women and false gods. According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b), Pinchas' pedigree is given in answer to critics who thought it unseemly that this foreign shoot (his mother's father was not ethnically Jewish) should rise up against the mighty oak of Zimri, the blue-blooded leader of a Jewish tribe.

Doesn't this miss the mark, asks a contemporary Jewish sage, Rabbi Meir Tzvi Bergman of Bnei Brak? Pointing out his illustrious Jewish relatives would hardly quiet those who saw him as an outsider for not being as "purely" Jewish as they.

The issue, Bergman says, was not the purity of Pinchas' bloodline, but the purity of his intention. Some suspected him of perpetuating the religious fervor and unchecked passion of his maternal forebear, a spiritual seeker who had flipped between competing deities as if they were hamburgers on a grill. His gambit had worked -- but did it come from a holy place? The Torah testifies in response that Pinchas was a rather reluctant zealot, a chip off a very different block. He was motivated only by the desire to save lives, and followed the example of his other grandfather, Aaron, beloved by all as the great pursuer of peace (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12). Pinchas did not act on anything he had heard directly from Aaron, but rather on who Aaron really was, in his essence.

The most profound lessons we teach are not conveyed through direct clarification, but by showing who we are and what we stand for, by laying bare the consistent themes in our lives. Call it trickle-down ethics. We fail to understand that we often teach lessons -- positive and negative -- when we are least aware.

No one needs to know this more than parents.

When we get angry around our kids, what ticks us off? Violations of ethical principles, or small perturbations of our sense of order? What does this show them regarding what we are really passionate about?

Then, there are more subtle points. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, one of the most esteemed deans of American yeshivot, once found himself on a plane with a childhood acquaintance who had become a ranking official in the Histadrut, the Israel Labor Organization. The acquaintance was quite taken by the stream of grandchildren who punctuated the flight by coming over and asking Kaminetsky if there were anything they could do to make him more comfortable. The acquaintance admitted to not being treated with as much solicitude by his own grandchildren, whom, in fact, he saw rather infrequently. Why the difference, he asked?

"Quite simple," Kaminetsky responded. "Your children and grandchildren picked up your world view, in which all life evolved by complete chance from primordial chaos. Naturally, they look at older things as more primitive, less developed, and wish to distance themselves from them. To them, you are one generation closer to a common ancestry with apes. Mine believe in a moment of Revelation at Sinai, with generations born afterward looking with awe at those who stood there. I represent something positive, a link with the greatness of those who came before me."

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the great 19th-century mussar (ethical development) campaigner, had a pithy way of illustrating the power of unspoken lessons. "Find a horse thief, and there is a good chance his father was a hard-working butcher -- who sometimes kept his thumb on the scale. And his father was likely a Torah sage who 'borrowed' the thoughts of others without attribution."

Insanity, goes the old saw, is hereditary: you get it from your kids. What our kids get from us may be much more important, and is certainly far more subtle.

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