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Parashat Pinchas: A True Lottery

Parashat Pinchas: A True Lottery

Yehoshua’s answer to Achan teaches us something about the essence of the lottery system and quite a lot about proper conduct in our lives. The lottery determined for generations not only the portion of each tribe but also set the conditions for yovel, the Jubilee year, to take effect.

Yoel Yakoby


Only through lots shall the Land be apportioned; they shall inherit it according to the names of their fathers' tribes. (Bamidbar 26:55).
Our Rabbis taught: … [When Achan sinned and Yehoshua cast lots and the lot fell on Achan] Said [Achan] to [Yehoshua}; “Yehoshua, do you convict me by a mere lot? You and Elazar the Priest are the two greatest men of the generation, yet were I to cast lots upon you, the lot will fall on one of you!”  “I beg you,”  [Yehoshua] replied, “cast no aspersions on [the efficacy of] lots, for the Land of Israel is yet to be divided up by means of lots, as it is written, ‘Only through lots shall the Land be apportioned.’” Sanhedrin 43b, according to the Torah Temimah

 Yehoshua’s reply to Achan doesn’t answer the question

Achan’s story as it is presented here is somewhat astounding. Achan was about to be caught for a severe crime—which was the reason for the Israelites’ defeat. Instinctively, befitting someone caught red-handed, he tries to elude the question. At first glance, his claim is a strong one: The moment that lots are cast, they have to fall on someone! Even if you cast lots between Yehoshua and Elazar the High Priest, it will fall on one of them.

Yehoshua’s reply is somewhat strange: he does not relate to the gist of the claim, nor does he give the obvious and correct answer—that it was G-d who commanded that lots be cast in order to catch the sinner (Yehoshua 7:15). His answer is completely different, and it is directed at Achan’s national, if not spiritual conscience: Don’t cast aspersions on the lottery system, as it can undermine the apportioning of the Land of Israel for the Israelites. Note that according to this Beriyta it doesn’t seem at all that Yehoshua is promising—or at least giving Achan any reason to believe—that he will be pardoned should he confess (while Ravina does hint at this in the Gemara). That is, he is expecting Achan to be mature enough to take responsibility for his sins so as not to harm the entire nation.

Surprisingly enough, Achan accepts his answer. He quickly gets off his high horse, and in contrast to people for whom truth is not their guiding light (who are quoted right and left in the media), he confesses: “Indeed, I have sinned against Hashem, the G-d of Israel; thus and thus is what I have done.” (Yehoshua 7:20). Even if we take into consideration the great blow that Achan’s actions dealt to the nation at the war of Ai, it is difficult to not be in awe of this assumption of responsibility by a person who would not receive any benefit in the form of communal respect. Achan is in no way commemorated as one of the righteous people of the Jewish nation; nevertheless, his act deserves to be respected andfurther inspected.

 The lottery: a revelation of G-d’s will

 It seems that Yehoshua understood what Achan was getting at. Achan did not view his act as a heinous crime: he did not harm anyone, nor did he publically rebel against G-d. All he did was save for himself several items that otherwise would have been lost or destroyed. The problem was that his act was the polar opposite of G-d’s will. Achan could not challenge the true accusation against him, but he certainly had reasons—not justified ones, of course—to fight it. And he, indeed, starts trying to go down this path. Yehoshua, however, beseeches him to accept the greatness of the lottery system. In this way, Yehoshua touches on two points, the first of which we noted above: he called on Achan to demonstrate national responsibility so as not to undermine the holiness of the lottery; this, in turn, would undermine the apportioning of the Land of Israel and the harmony within the nation.

There is another point here that is even deeper. The lottery expresses an inner truth, one that human beings cannot tamper with. While a lottery is performed by the people who cast the lots, it essentially expresses the will of G-d, Who wanted the lots to fall as they did. Here, Yehoshua is telling Achan: “Just as the lottery in the apportioning of the Land of Israel is the expression of G-d’s will, so too is this lottery that was cast to implicate you. Perhaps you have what to answer back, but you know and understand that G-d put you in this situation where you are standing face-to-face with you sin. Now you have the power to confess and in this way express your great faith in G-d that it is He who put you in this situation—or, alternatively you can deny your sin, and worse—repudiate G-d’s providence. Even after Achan sinned, here, at least, he passed the test.

 The situation G-d puts us in is like a lottery

The situation Achan was in we often see throughout our lives. At various opportunities we are presented with human choices that we feel we are harmed by. Whether these are choices made accidentally, or worse, due to corruption, we must fight them. However, sometimes these are decisions that had they not been related to us they would have seemed completely legitimate (even if a different decision could have been made). Since we are involved, though, the personal aspects of the issue cause us to feel bitter. While we don’t have the power to change the decision, we certainly do have the ability to turn on our feelings of bitterness.      

For instance, someone’s son tried to get into an educational institution and was not accepted. If the rejection was based on a mistake or on discrimination, there certainly is room to fight the decision. However, parents can often see, if they are just a little bit honest with themselves, that the institution’s decision was logical and legitimate. If we feel that it is possible and the right thing to fight the decision in a respectful fashion then that is certainly the way to go. Sometimes, though, there is no point in doing so, and people make it up to themselves “at least” by feeling embittered. Occasionally these sentiments are only waiting for the right time to erupt—and then substantial sins can be added to the feelings of embitterment, such as the prohibitions against taking revenge and bearing a grudge. At times this embitterment can propel people to destroy an entire society; when they channel their embitterment against another person commensurate to their feelings, the danger is certainly a hundredfold.   

In this case it is worthwhile to adopt the conduct that Yehoshua expected of Achan, who, indeed, lived up to his expectations. While the institution’s decision is a human one, G-d is the One who brings about its ramifications. G-d put us in this situation. The See of Lublin said that whatever happens to a person, even if it was caused by another person (who has free will), it is from G-d alone. As such, feelings of embitterment are superfluous and harmful. In these situations, G-d wants us to rise above our negative feelings and demonstrate faith and responsibility. Faith—that the One who brought us into this situation is G-d and not a person; responsibility—to understand that even in cases where we were harmed (and we do not have the power to rectify or change the situation), we must not allow our negative sentiments to take over.

The strict standards of yovel and the portion of half-of-Menashe

From the time the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe were exiled, [the observance] of the Jubilee year ceased, as [implied by the verse], “You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land to all of its inhabitants” (Vayikra 25:10). [One can infer that this commandment applies only] when all of its inhabitants are dwelling within it. [Moreover,] they may not be intermingled, one tribe with another, but rather each tribe is dwelling in its appropriate place. (Rambam, Laws of Sabbatical Year and Jubilee 10:8, based on Arachin 32b).

 When is yovel in force?

The lottery discussed in our parasha does not only have ramifications related to property—who will inherit each portion of the Land of Israel—rather, it also has implications for the application of the precept of yovel.

Most of the precepts related to the Land of Israel do not apply as Torah obligations nowadays (terumot, ma’aserot, and shemita according to most opinions), or do not apply at all (bikurim and yovel); mainstream opinion is that only orlah applies in our days as a full-fledged Torah obligation. Each precept has a different factor that would make it a Torah obligation. Yovel seems to have the most exacting prerequisites, namely that the entire Jewish people dwell in the Land of Israel, but moreover, that each tribe occupy its ancestral portion as decided by the lottery.  While bringing back the Jewish people to the Land of Israel is a difficult task, from the view point of the past 67 years, it seems that it can be done; but to identify the tribe each person belongs to is almost entirely impossible in a natural fashion, and in order to do so we will need the Moshiach (Rambam, Laws of Kings 12:3). In fact, the precept of yovel has not been in effect for many years—for more than one hundred years before the destruction of the First Temple, with the first buds of exile upon exile of the tribes that dwelled on the eastern side of the Jordan River. 

 The portion of half-of-Menashe

We already learned about the portions of Reuven and Gad in the past. Now we will discuss the very vast portion of half of the tribe of Menashe—not the half to which the daughters of Tzelafchad belonged to (their portion was in the Northern Samaria on the western side of the Jordan River). Menashe’s portion was essentially the northern portion of Gilad—from the Yabok River and northwards. This land had never belonged to Amon or Mo’av, and therefore there was no need for it to have been conquered first by Sichon or Og. Half-of-Menashe also inherited the Bashan region—including the Golan and its environs, part of the Hermon, and Salkha, which is the Druze Mount in contemporary Syria, one of the areas starring in today’s news due to the unstable situation in Syria. As the Da’at Mikrah Atlas (p. 110) reads the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikurim, end of chapter 1), in contrast to the plots of settlement of Reuven and Gad, the area of settlement of half-of-Menashe  in the kingdom of Og  has always been part of the tradition of the settlement of the Jewish people.