While we only read each Torah portion once in the normal cycle of Torah readings throughout the year, there is one parshat from which we read more often than all others — Parashat Pinchas, named after High Priest Aaron’s grandson who became famous (or infamous) for impaling a couple engaged in the most intimate act because a Midianite princess (Cozbi) was seducing an Israelite prince (Zimri) in order to entice him to practice idolatry. So much for the expression, “A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”!
The reason we read from Parshat Pinchas so regularly is because the latter portion of the parsha lists all of the special offerings which were made on special days in the Jewish calendar — the High Holy Days, the Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot), Rosh Hodesh, etc. We therefore include appropriate verses from these passages in the liturgy for those days.
I recently read a volume by an Israeli professor, Meir Tamari, entitled “Jewish Values in Our Open Society — A Weekly Torah Commentary.” In the section on Pinchas, Tamari notes that one of the animals frequently used as a sacrifice is an ox, quoting Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch that “the ox is the draught animal, beast of burden, and primarily mechanical too l… The ox is referred to in its prime, neither a calf nor one unsuitable for work.” According to Tamari, “So Judaism is not a religion for little children, nor for the aged and weak. Rather it is when we are in our physical prime, without our developed intellectual powers and accumulating economic wealth that the spiritual and ethical challenges are most powerful. Therefore, it is just at these times that the Torah teachings and law are most needed. It is, however, also when the mission of making everything holy can be translated into reality.”
While I can appreciate the logic of Hirsch and Tamari, I beg to differ in the following ways. While it is important for those people in their prime to dedicate themselves to the service of God, unless someone starts to learn the proper path of Torah and mitzvot early in life, they are not likely to find it in their prime. Furthermore, experience has taught me that there are many older people who remain vigorous and vital even in advanced age. Their contributions to spiritual life ought not be discounted nor dismissed. We are all familiar with people in their eighties and nineties who are in full possession of their mental faculties, but who continue to contribute in a meaningful way to their communities. I have been privileged to know several centenarians about whom this could also be said.
Too often, we mistakenly think that we must only focus exclusively on children and their Jewish education. While it is always praiseworthy to teach and nurture children, such “pediatric” Judaism fails when kids see that adults do not lead by example. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who prefer “geriatric” Judaism. They falsely believe that Jewish learning and tradition is the sole domain of senior citizens. This has been jokingly referred to as “cramming for the finals,” but that approach also falls short because Judaism is something that we should take serious at every age, and besides — not everyone lives to be a senior citizen.
Service to God and to fellow human beings is not limited to those of a specific age. Quite the contrary, at every stage of our lives we are capable of making a real difference. Let us live up to our Jewish potential now — no matter how old or young we might be. JN
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, retired pulpit rabbi and Navy chaplain, is former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.