VA’ERA (Exodus, 6:2-9:35) — “Answering the Call of Puti”

In this week’s Torah Portion we are introduced to Pinchas, the grandson of Putiel.  He is better known, later on in the Torah, as Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Priest.  (Numbers, 25:11) 

In listing the family lines of Moses and Aaron, the Torah tells us: 

Elazar, the son of Aaron, took one of the daughters of Putiel as a wife, and she bore to him Pinchas…  (Exodus, 6:25) 

Who was this Putiel?  It’s not at all clear.  Some commentaries say he was a well-known person in his day.  It seems from other commentaries that he didn’t exist at all; that he was a “composite.” 

The Talmud (Sotah 43a) indicates that the name “Putiel” is a reference to Joseph.  “Putiel” is a play on words for “pit-peit = conquered” because Joseph conquered his Evil Inclination when his master’s wife tried to seduce him.  (See “Nowhere Man”.)  As well, it is a reference to Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who, in his earlier days as a Midianite Priest, used to “piteim = fatten” calves to be sacrificed to idols. 

So who was Pinchas’ grandfather?  The Talmud concludes that Elazar married a daughter of “Putiel,” a man who descended from Joseph (“pit-peit”) on one side and Jethro (“piteim”) on the other.

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What’s with the nicknames?  Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us the man’s name?!!  Before we answer this question, let’s look a little more closely at his grandson, Pinchas. 

Pinchas was a man who was reviled by his contemporaries.  Unlike others in Aaron’s family, he was not a Kohain — Priest. That honor was reserved for Aaron, his four sons, and any of their future sons.  Pinchas was born earlier; therefore he was a regular Levite.  When a Tribal leader engaged in illicit behavior with a Midianite prostitute, Pinchas killed him.  His quick thinking ended a plague that G-d had sent against Israel.  (See “A Covenant of Pieces.) 

The victim’s relatives were unimpressed; in fact, they were livid.  “Who does he think he is?!  This ‘ben-Puti’, this descendent of Jethro, who fattened calves for idol worship, dares to lift a spear against a prince of Israel?!” 

Now was not the time to push the Jethro connection: 

G-d spoke to Moses, saying, Pinchas, son of Elazar the son of Aaron the Priest turned My anger away from the Israelites when he zealously took up My cause among them, so that I did not destroy the Israelites in My jealousy.  Therefore, tell him that I have given him My Covenant of Peace.”  (Numbers, 25:10-12) 

Pinchas, son of Elazar the son of Aaron the Priest.”  G-d wanted to emphasize that Pinchas was a descendant of Aaron the Priest.  He had acted in a holy fashion.  As a result, he too became a Priest, and most of the High Priests descended from him.

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But, in one respect, his critics were right.  He was “ben-Puti”, a descendant of “Putiel.”  Where they were wrong was in their assumption that being coming from Putiel was something to be ashamed of. 

There was a plague going on.  On the advice of the evil prophet Bilam, the Moabites and Midianites sent prostitutes into the holy Camp of Israel to entice them to commit the sins of idolatry and promiscuity.  Bilam understood that the G-d of Israel would never tolerate such decadence, and that He would turn against His People.  And how right he was!  The orgy went on, and people were dying in droves.  After consulting with Moses, (see “Righteous Indignation vs. Abortion Clinics”) Pinchas picked up a spear and killed two of the culprits. 

Where did Pinchas find the strength of character to defy the mob and sanctify G-d’s name with this controversial act? He got it by being a “ben-Puti.’ 

Pinchas was a descendent of Joseph.  All alone, a slave in a foreign country, Joseph was set upon by a snake.  His wife’s master set her eyes upon him, and repeatedly tried to weaken his resolve.  It would have been so easy.  Yet, he “pit-peit = conquered” his Evil Inclination and maintained his dedication to Torah values.   He knew that to give in to this woman was wrong, and he just wouldn’t do it, no matter what. 

Pinchas was a descendent of Jethro.  He had been the High Priest of the national religion.  However, he came to terms with his beliefs, and decided that they didn’t make sense.  He quit.  As a result, he was hated in his own country.  His daughters were harassed.  (See Exodus, 2:16-17)   What a difficult decision!  He plunged from the pinnacle of Midianite society to the bottom. (Imagine if the Pope suddenly announced to his followers that he was trading in his white “Yarmulke” for a black one and becoming Jewish!)  It would have been so easy to go with the flow; to continue to “piteim”, fatten those calves for the dominant religion.  But he wouldn’t do it.  He knew that idol worship was wrong, and he just wouldn’t do it, no matter what. 

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin says that the reason the Torah introduces Pinchas in this week’s Torah Portion is to show us what Pinchas was made of.  His father had married a daughter of Putiel.  Pinchas truly was a ben-Puti.  He was the descendent of two towers of strength.  These two men overcame the pressures of society and did what is right.  Joseph overcame the urge to engage in immoral intimate behavior.  Jethro overcame the urge to engage in idolatrous behavior.  Their grandson Pinchas, armed with the strength of character of his forbears, had to fight against both urges. 

Israel was in trouble.  Its moral fiber was unraveling.  The twin sins that Joseph and Jethro had defeated were now threatening to defeat Israel.  Pinchas ”ben-Puti” to the rescue!  He saved Israel from G-d’s anger by putting into practice what he had learned from those who came before him.

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What would have happened had Joseph succumbed?  Would it really have mattered?  Would it really have made that much of a difference if Jethro hadn’t resigned his position as a calf-fattener?  

It would have made all the difference in the world.  Pinchas would not have had the tools he needed to save Israel from the plague. 

You and I are who we are because of what has been passed down to us by our ancestors.  Abraham was hospitable and kind.  Isaac was self-sacrificing.  Jacob was the epitome of truth.  We have those attributes in our DNA; sometimes we don’t let it show, but it’s there.  

When we do Mitzvahs and act with integrity, we produce a spiritual legacy that we pass on to our offspring.  When we act inappropriately, we do the same.  

Let’s remember that the next time we’re faced with a dilemma to overcome.  We can be great because we come from great people.  We have the power to make our children great.  

It’s time to stop “puttering” around!

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz 

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links. 

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 From the Archives  

“Abracadabra = MC2” (2010) 

“Show me a sign!” challenged the Pharaoh … Moses was prepared. He took his staff and threw it to the floor. The staff miraculously turned into a snake. Surely, this man was for real. 

The Pharaoh laughed in his face. “Do you think you can impress me with simple magic? Anything you can do, my magicians can do better!” 

Sure enough, the Egyptian sorcerers made their own sticks into snakes. “Are you trying to sell straw in Ofarayim?!” (The Egyptian equivalent of bringing coal to Newcastle or rabbis to Monsey. 🙂 ) This was Egypt, the magic capital of the world! … 

Do we believe in magic?!… 

Read more

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THIS is your Life!” (2009) 

Slaves aren’t real people.  They are chattel; they are property.  They can be bought and sold and bartered like animals…

Pharaoh felt the same way about his Israelites.  They were his possessions, to be utilized in the efficient production of bricks for his ambitious building projects.  He was free to do with them as he wanted. He could even kill their children and use their blood for medicinal purposes.  No one was going to take away his Jews… 

Well, almost no one.  Two Levites by the names of Moses and Aaron were making trouble.  The G-d of Israel, they explained, wanted Pharaoh to release the slaves.  Pharaoh had no interest in complying. 

 “Who is G-d that I should listen to His voice to release Israel?  I don’t know G-d, nor will I let Israel go!”  (Exodus, 5:1-2) 

How could chattel have a G-d??  These sub-human life forms known as Hebrews couldn’t have a G-d!  Why should the great Pharaoh follow the dictates of someone who represents the fictional G-d of a primitive cult? 

Pharaoh obviously needed some convincing… 

Read more

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“Let the Pharaoh GO!” (2008) 

…Pharaoh took this god thing pretty seriously.  He even went to great efforts to convince his subjects that he was super-human.  Yes, they fed him the finest foods.  He had the most comfortable royal furniture.  This man who would be a god was a very material fellow.  Every creature comfort known to man was, no doubt, available in the palace.  With one exception… 

Can you picture the scene? 

“Good morning, Your Majesty!”

“Oh, Moses!  Is that you again?  What are you doing here?” 

“I need to speak with you, your Majesty.  Right away.” 

“Not now, Moses.  Come see me at the palace later.” 

“No, Your Majesty.  I really need to speak with you now…” 

“Uhm, not right now, Moses.  I’m kinda busy at the moment…” 

“Oh I’ll be quick, Your Majesty.  I just have to speak with you for a couple of minutes…” 

“FOR A COUPLE OF MINUTES??!! I DON’T HAVE A COUPLE OF MINUTES!!!  PLEASE MOSES, GO AWAY!  NOW!  PLEASE!  … 

Read more

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 “Answering the Call of Puti” (2007) 

In listing the family lines of Moses and Aaron, the Torah tells us: 

Elazar, the son of Aaron, took one of the daughters of Putiel as a wife, and she bore to him Pinchas…  (Exodus, 6:25) 

Who was this Putiel?  It’s not at all clear.  Some commentaries say he was a well-known person in his day.  It seems from other commentaries that he didn’t exist at all; that he was a “composite.” 

The Talmud (Sotah 43a) indicates that the name “Putiel” is a reference to Joseph…As well, it is a reference to Moses’ father-in-law Jethro… 

What’s with the nicknames?  Why doesn’t the Torah simply tell us the man’s name?!!… 

Read more

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“Frog Beaters” (2006) 

Sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart. 

…  Our Sages tell us that the Plague of Frogs was a compound miracle.  The swarms of frogs started out with one big frog.  The Egyptians tried to kill it.  Every time they hit a frog, it produced more frogs.  Soon the entire country was inundated with frogs. 

Now let me ask you a simple question.  If a big frog walked into your house, you might try to kill it.  That I understand.  But tell me, if every time you hit it, it produced more frogs, what would you immediately stop doing? 

If the Egyptians saw that their efforts to get rid of the frogs were backfiring, why did they keep hitting the frogs?!… 

Yes, sometimes smart people do things that aren’t so smart… 

Read more.  

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“Sorry, PETA, Pig’s Feet Aren’t Kosher!” (2005) 

… Moses knew where Pharaoh was coming from.  He was an Egyptian king with Egyptian values.   He despised everything Moses stood for.  The very thought of an Israelite slaughtering a lamb in service of G-d was an anathema to everything he stood for.  But he was willing to compromise.  For now.  If keeping his slaves from leaving Egypt meant tolerating Jews eating lamb chops, he was willing to make the tradeoff.  For now. 

Sounds a little like PETA… 

Read more

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“Life Begins … Today!” (2004) 

… In the middle of a discussion of Moses’ “marching orders,” the Torah makes a statement that seems a bit incongruous: 

Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron was eighty-three years old, when they spoke with the Pharaoh.  (Exodus, 7:7) 

…  These men were in their eighties.  They were old!  What were they doing running around back and forth to the palace?  Couldn’t G-d find some younger men to take on this demanding task? … 

Read more.  

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“I Opened the Door…Where’s Eliyahu??” (2002) 

He comes to visit every year.  We pour a cup of wine in his honor, and then welcome his arrival through our open door. 

I refer, of course, to Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, our annual Seder guest… Actually, at the risk of bursting a very popular balloon … Elijah does NOT join us at each Seder… 

Read more.  

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“Not So Loud, the Bread Can Hear You!” (2001) 

…Imagine the scene.  The Shabbos table is set.  Everyone is hungry, and waiting to say Kiddush and begin the meal.  Dad lifts the cup to say Kiddush… then he sees it…the Challah cover is missing. Dad gets annoyed: “Of all the…what’s the matter with you?!!” he bellows.  “Can’t you remember a simple thing like a Challah cover?!!!!!”… 

Read more.  

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on January 18, 2007 at 9:43 am  Leave a Comment  

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