Pinchas: A puzzling priest

Pinchas: A puzzling priest

“What do we think of Pinchas?” I can hear the comments on Shabbat morning now:

“He was a zealot.”

“A vigilante.”

“A murderer; a terrorist.”

“A religious extremist, like the Taliban, like Hamas.”

“A fanatic, like the Republicans in the House of Representatives in this debt ceiling debate.”

The participants in our lively, weekly Shabbat Morning Torah Study at Temple Sinai in Tenafly (as in most Jewish groups) are not shy about sharing their views, religious or political. I don’t expect to find too many supporters of Pinchas or God’s response to him this Shabbat morning.

Who is this “Pinchas” and what does he do in this week’s parashah to engender such a strong reaction? Pinchas, as the Torah tells us, was the son of Eleazar, the kohen (priest), who was the son of Aaron, the first kohen. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Balak, the Torah tells of how Israel, dwelling in Shittim, at the very edge of the Promised Land, profaned themselves by sleeping with Moabite women and participating with them in the worship of their god, Baal Pe’or. God, naturally, was incensed at this violation of the covenant and instructed Moses to execute the ring leaders of this rebellion. Moses was in the process of giving those instructions to Israel’s officials when a young man, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, in front of Moses and all the people, took a Midianite tribal princess into a tent to have sex with her. Seeing this, Pinchas got up and took a spear, went into the chamber where the Israelite and Midianite were having intercourse and stabbed them straight through the “belly”, killing them. (As you might imagine, I’m glad this portion falls in the summer so that I don’t have to teach this to bar/bat mitzvah students!)

After this execution a plague that was ravaging the Israelites stopped. God then says to Moses, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of 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 brit shalom (lit: covenant of peace; New JPS trans., ‘pact of friendship’). It shall be for him 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.'”

The response of the rabbis of old to Pinchas is ambivalent. The Torah depicts God as approving his act of vigilante justice and rewarding him for it. It is not surprising then that the rabbis would find ways to justify his actions within the halachic framework that they developed. Rashi, based on the Talmud interpolation (Sanhedrin 82a), says that when Pinchas saw what the Israelite prince and Midianite princess were doing he was “reminded of the halachah (law) on this subject.” He said to Moses, “I have received from you [the law] that he who has intercourse with an Aramean (heathen) woman, zealous people may attack him.” Moses then instructed him to go ahead and attack them. Other rabbis were uncomfortable with Pinchas taking the law into his own hands pointing out that had things not happened exactly as they did, Pinchas could have been subject to the death penalty for his actions. The Talmud even posits that had Pinchas asked the rabbinical court if he was permitted to kill the Midianite/Israelite violators the court would have told him, “The law may permit it but we do not follow the law.” (Sandhedrin, 82a) Still others, particularly later commentators, such as the K’tav Sofer (Rav Abraham Samuel Schreiber), Ha’Natziv (Rav Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin), point to the fact that God’s reward for Pinchas involved serving as a kohen, where all his activities would be highly circumscribed, forcing him to restrain his zealotry, and a brit shalom, “a covenant of peace,” which would temper his temper. These commentaries open the door to a reading of the Torah text which takes us away from an endorsement of vigilantism, violence and extremism and toward a Torah of shalom, peace.

As you might imagine, this is the Torah I prefer. I hope you do as well. We live in a world riven by extremists. Our political and religious dialogue is often dominated by extremists and our defense budget driven by our worry about violent extremists. Extreme passion often leads to extreme problems. Our world could use a brit shalom; it would be a lot happier place.

At the same time, most of us are not extremists. We live in the murky middle, far from the extremes, particularly as Jews. As Rabbi Irwin Groner once put it, “Judaism in North America does not suffer from an excess of religious passion as much as it does from the deficiency thereof.” As such, we might take an additional message from this portion, though perhaps a bit counterintuitive: We could all do with a little bit of Pinchas inside us. As Rabbi David Hartman teaches, Judaism can’t just be a “to do” list that we check off – or don’t check off – depending on our particular religious orientation. Mitzvah means “commandment.” It comes from the notion that God urgently wants us, indeed needs us to act in order to bring God’s Presence into the world and to bring about tikkun olam, a repair of the world in all its aspects. To do so we could all use a bit of that hitlahavut, that inward fire, that passion and enthusiasm, that Pinchas had. May we always use it for the good.

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