Parshat Pinchas is a very problematic section of Torah for me. It is the climax of not only the Book of Numbers but of the entire wilderness epic of Israel. Before the text goes into the festival calendar of sacrifices we find a narrative that seems to note the conclusion of the Israelites wilderness epic.
In Numbers 27:12 we read: “Adonai said to Moses ‘ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin as was your brother Aaron. ….”
Moses’ response here, in verses 27:15-19, is very different from the one we will hear two months from now, when we read the end of Deuteronomy. Rather than pleading for his life, as he does in Deuteronomy, Moses acquiesces to the news that he too will die in the wilderness, asking God only to insure communal continuity. “Adonai Source of the breath of all flesh appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them and who shall take them out and bring them in so that Adonai’s community may not be sheep that have no shepherd,” he pleads.
Adonai answered Moses: “Single out Joshua ben Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole house of Israel and commission him in their sight.”
Finally, in verse 27:22 we are told, “Moses did just as God had commanded.” This biblical phrase, acknowledging obedience to God’s command is found first in Genesis, referring to Noah building the ark. Its repetition throughout the Torah is a way that the Torah expresses man’s obedient acceptance of God’s ultimate authority.
Juxtaposed with this narrative is the story of Pinchas, the son of Eleazar and the grandson of Aaron. Pinchas is praised for zealously executing Zimri, an Israelite, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman with whom Zimri apparently was going to have intercourse at the Tent of Meeting.
The text in Numbers 25:10-13 reads: “Adonai spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas ben Eleazar, ben Aaron, the priest, has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my passion. Say therefore, I grant him my ‘briti shalom,’” which JPS translates as my pact of friendship, rather than its literal meaning, peace.
The text continues: “It shall be for him, Pinchas, and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.”
I find these verses very problematic for a 21st-century Jew. Numbers 25:10-13 can and has been interpreted by some as God’s commending Pinchas for his act of vengeance. In the three previous verses of Torah that formed the maftir for last week’s Torah reading, Pinchas, we are told, rose up from among the community and murdered an Israelite man. We learn this week the man was Zimri, who died with his Midianite concubine, Cozbi. Moreover, for contemporary Jews, our question is: What distinguishes the Pinchas of this week’s Torah reading from ISIS or Hamas terrorists or Yigal Amir? Amir is the Israeli Jew who murdered Prime Minister Rabin, justifying his action by comparing himself to Pinchas and Rabin to Zimri. In the contemporary world there are far too many who, in the name of their god, violate the fundamental precept You shall not murder that is at the foundation of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
Every year when I read this parasha I ask myself: Where is the line between zeal and zealotry? Is the cliché “might makes right” in fact an existential truth? Is Pinchas praised here only because he is the high priest? Or are he and his descendants given the priesthood, as the Torah says, because of his zeal for God?
Pinchas is what my brother Rabbi Mark Borovitz likes to call a truly “both/and” character.
In his book “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah,” Mark writes of this Pinchas-Zimri confrontation by noting that Zimri is a descendant of Shimon and Pinchas of Levi. He recalls the story of their conspiratorial act of vengeance against Shchem and their father’s condemnation of it. In noting that the Torah text defends Pinchas’ action, my brother asks, How often do any of us justify our words and deeds by saying that we are doing the only thing possible to save our community, our family, or our country? How often do we use some good reason to cloak our own ambition, our own self-will, etc., to justify taking drastic action? How often do we publicize and magnify one bad thing that someone has done, and forget all the good that they do? How often do we get even with another person, while proclaiming that we are doing these things in the name of God?
Truth be told, Pinchas can be a model for either or both, either a superhero who fights for truth, justice, and the American way of life — or a terrorist. There have been years when I have read the story of Pinchas and condemned him. Yet there have been other times when I have read this same story and praised him. This year I find myself both embracing and wrestling with the Pinchas who is within me and the Pinchas-like figures who are all around me.
When I listen to the zeal for vengeance on our news channels, the hatred based on fear of the other that so many of our societal leaders use as a tool to retain power, I must say to the Pinchas of our parasha: No! No, I cannot justify or even condone your actions. Enough with fear based violence! Every hateful action does not justify an equal opposing reaction.
Is it not Pinchas-like zeal and self-righteousness on both sides of our political divide here in America in 2018 that has led us to the crisis on the U.S.-Mexican border in the name of We the People of the United States? Where is the Aaron, whom our rabbis have characterized as the quintessential peacemaker? Where is the Joshua who can lead us in a battle for security while simultaneously teaching us to live in peace with people with whom we differ politically and ethnically?
In his new book, “The Soul of America,” Jon Meacham points out that America has lived through a number of other periods of darkness, when political leaders and large numbers of the electorate have been consumed by fear, greed, and ignorance and turned away from the ideals of our nation. And then we have seen a correction that has put our nation back on track toward the ongoing creation of a society based upon the ideals of our founding documents.
As American Jews we know this thesis to be true. In 1787, with the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the United States of America became the first nation on earth to extend citizenship to Jews and guarantee freedom of religion for all. Conversely, we have a right to remind and remember that the very same fears of immigrants overrunning America today — that they’d take jobs away from native Americans and change American culture — were heard a century ago. The results of those fears were the immigration laws of 1921 and 1924, limiting immigration from eastern and southern Europe. Those barriers led to “no room at the inn” signs for millions of European Jews in the 1930s and 40s. We in northern New Jersey can remember that these immigration quotas were ignored and refugee status was extended to more than 500,000 Jews from the former Soviet Union in the period from 1980 to 2000. That granting of asylum was welcomed by our community, and together with government support, and the funds raised by our UJA-Federation, thousands of those asylum seekers were absorbed and integrated into our northern New Jersey community.
Moses is described for us throughout the book of Numbers as a humble yet assertive human leader. He gets angry and frustrated, but at the end of each conflict he chooses the best possible direction to lead his people. His leadership style is to be a teacher who recognizes the human fears and failures of the people and seeks ways to overcome them. When he left Egypt there was an erev rav — a mixed multitude — who joined in the Exodus. Moses didn’t ask anyone of them for birth certificates. He asked them only to pledge their allegiance to God.
Are there not some salient messages in this narrative from Numbers for 21st century America and for Israel as well?