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Dvar Torah on Parshat Pinchas

Parashat Hashavua Pinchas 2016 / 5776 - Parents and Children: Letting Go

21.07.2016 by

My first grandchild to reach the age of Mitzvot – my lovely and wonderful granddaughter Atara - is about to become Bat Mitzvah. I would never think of giving my fabulous son and daughter-in-law parenting tips, as they are doing such an outstanding job with all of their truly delightful children, so you will get to be the lucky recipients of my sage advice.

In this week’s parsha (the one we read in Israel), Parshat Pinchas, Moshe, who is approaching the end of his life, is told by God to appoint Yehoshua as his successor. God tells him to “take Yehoshua ben Nun, a man who has spirit, and place your hands upon him, and stand him before Elazar the priest and before the entire congregation and command him before their eyes” (Numbers, 27;18-19).

Rashi (France, 11th century), commenting on the phrase “and place your hands upon him”, says the following:  “give him a meturgeman [someone who serves as a kind of teaching assistant for a senior Rabbi-teacher during his public classes] so that he [Yehoshua] may teach Torah while you are still alive, so that it won’t be said about him: ‘he couldn’t even raise his head while Moshe was still alive.’“  

Rashi is pointing out an interesting and important dynamic. Apparently, the nation witnessing Moshe officially appointing Yehoshua his successor would not have been enough to prevent negative comparisons between him and Yehoshua; Yehoshua would be seen as clearly second-best, not really deserving, as he only assumed an independent  leadership role after Moshe was gone. What is necessary is for Yehoshua, while Moshe is still alive, and functioning as the leader of the nation, to begin to take on that role himself: he needs to start teaching his own Torah, alone, as a master teacher. He needs to step out from under Moshe’s shadow, “raise his head”, as Rashi says, and bring his own personality and opinions to bear, while Moshe is still alive, and fully functioning, for him to be truly accepted as worthy, competent, his own man.

The message for us, as parents, is clear. Before we go, before we are no longer fully functioning, and while we are still completely present as parents, we must allow and encourage – “place our hands upon” – our children to act on their own, decide on their own, even while we are still there and could easily make “better”, more experienced decisions. If we wait until it is too late, the questions about their competence – internal and external questions – will always be there; the lingering doubts and possible lack of self confidence may well haunt their adulthood forever. We must allow them to “raise their heads” in our presence, with our knowledge and support, so that they will be able, once we are gone, to raise their heads whenever they want or need to.

The blessing made by parents at a Bat Mitzvah expresses this beautifully, and starkly: “Blessed is He who exempted me from the punishment of this one.” I am no longer fully responsible for my child and his or her decisions, that responsibility is theirs now. Whatever they might do, right or wrong, is their own decision, and their own responsibility. This is not an abdication: it is a placing of hands upon the Bar or Bat Mitzvah, allowing them to make their own mistakes, so they can also make their own right choices.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Pinchas


In Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas is rewarded for his actions at the end of last week's parsha, Balak, in which he killed the Israelite who was publicly intimate with a Midianite woman. We then have a census of all the Israelites, which precedes the laws of how to divide the land of Israel among the tribes. At this stage, the five daughters of Zelaphchad approach Moshe and request the right to inherit their late father's portion of the land, which God grants them. Moshe, whose death is fast approaching, is told to choose Yehoshua as his successor, to lead the nation into Israel. The parsha ends with the laws of the daily and holiday sacrifices in the Temple.

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