Ken Jennings’ claim to fame is that he holds the record for the longest winning streak on “Jeopardy!” He is also the all-time leading money winner on U.S. game shows, having won 74 “Jeopardy!” games and nearly $3.2 million. A renowned trivia guru, he went on to be featured on a game show network program titled “Stump the Master,” in which questions were submitted by callers in an effort to try to find something that he didn’t know. That proved to be quite a challenge.
While a few of the figures in Jewish history get a distinctive title such as “Abraham our forefather” or “Sarah our matriarch,” only Moshe gets the title “Rabbeinu” (our rabbi), as his distinctive role is that of the educator and lawgiver to the Jewish people. He is the teacher of Torah, par excellence. Try stumping this master!
Yet this week’s Torah reading indicates that indeed it happened that Moshe was at a loss. There came a question that Moshe could not recall, and in his stead it was Pinchas who knew the answer.
The final narrative in the text speaks of a moment of communal crisis in which Jewish men were openly carrying on sexual relationships with Midianite women. As the nation looked to Moshe for guidance, he sat crying. Rashi quotes the Midrash in explanation that Moshe’s tears were a response to the realization that he at one point had known what to do, and simply could not remember at this time. He was pained that at other moments of need (such as the Golden Calf) he knew the answer, but in this case mental weakness got the better of him. How could it be that Pinchas would know, and Moshe would not? This was no mere 74-game winning streak!
The Tanchuma explains that this was actually a set up, as Moshe was caused to forget “in order that Pinchas should come and take that which suited him.” What does this mean? What suited him? Most simply, I believe that this is an observation that it was time for a new and younger generation to step up into leadership of the People.
Pinchas was born to a family of leaders, and is cited by Maimonides as one of the top younger Torah scholars of his day. But Moshe was such a towering intellectual figure that he cast a long shadow; as long as he was around, no one would turn to another for guidance. Thus, HaShem effectively neutralized Moshe in order that others should have the opportunity to step into the fray. Otherwise, there would be no one to direct and guide the Children of Israel after Moshe passed away.
With this in mind, I was interested to learn of the results of the recent East Bay Jewish population survey. An article in j. noted that in the survey of thousands East Bay residents, “72 percent of respondents said being Jewish is very important or somewhat important to them personally … and two-thirds agree or somewhat agreed that they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.” This seemed to me a very encouraging set of statistically backed statements that support the future of our Jewish community.
And then I got to the next segment: “Thirty percent currently provide their children with a formal Jewish education, but 48 percent said they were not too interested or not interested at all in providing a formal Jewish education.” We are blessed with wonderful and visionary leaders in our community, but each generation eventually gives way to the one that follows it. This is the way of the world. Yet think about it: If only 30 percent actually receive any formal Jewish education and nearly half of parents do not have interest in offering one, how diminished are our prospects of future leadership?
The continued “winning streak” of the Jewish people has already passed the 3,600 year mark. Back in Moshe’s day, the issue was whether people would recognize Pinchas when he arose to take charge. Now I pray that we will indeed raise children in our day who will be able to step up when our current best and brightest no longer have the capacity to stand at the helm.
Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at Rabbi@BethJacobOakland.org.