This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1) is about a man who is self-righteous, impulsive and violent, and the controversy that surrounds him is not unlike what is going on in the state of Israel today. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, we were told that Israelite men have been consorting with Midianite women and becoming worshipers of Baal. One of them goes so far as to bring a Midianite woman into his tent where he can clearly be seen from the tabernacle by Moses and by all the people. Pinchas leaves the assembly, takes a spear, follows the man and woman into the chamber, and impales them both together. He does not consult with Moses, he does not bring the man before the justice system that existed at the time, he just goes ahead and brutally kills them.
Who are this man and woman? We are not even told their names until almost the end of the matter, in this week’s Torah portion. The portion begins by telling us the result of Pinchas’ act. God tells Moses that Pinchas has turned back God’s wrath against the people by “displaying his passion”. God will grant Pinchas God’s gift of peace, and that his descendants will serve as the priests of the Temple. And, the Torah adds, almost as an aside, the man was Zimri son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and the woman was Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite tribal ruler.
On the surface, it would seem as if God approves of Pinchas’s deed, but the commentators are divided in their appraisal. Some praise him for his bravery in dealing handily with a situation that threatened the heart and soul of God’s people, and they can prove their case by God’s words at the beginning of this Torah portion. But many commentators on the Torah had trouble with Pinchas’ act. They viewed it as vigilantism and fanaticism, as setting a negative precedent, and were disturbed by God’s apparent approval of a brutal double murder, however justified.
In the Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a, Rav and Shmuel debate about whether or not Pinchas was right. Rav imagines a conversation between Pinchas and Moses in which Pinchas asks, “Great-uncle! Didn’t you say that God told you at Mount Sinai that any one cohabiting with a heathen woman should be punished by zealots?” and Moses answers, “Let the One who gave the order do the punishing”, in other words, yes, what Zimri did was wrong, but leave it to God to punish him. Shmuel argues that the situation was too extreme and too serious to allow the thing to pass. Immediate action was called for, not waiting to see how God would punish Zimri. Those who threaten Israel’s survival must be killed at all costs.
During these last few weeks, I hear the voices of Rav and Shmuel arguing in my own head and heart as I hear the news of the Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas militants, of the Palestinian boy burnt alive by Jewish extremists, of the rockets fired on Israeli cities which have forced the Israeli army to respond in defense, of the spiral of violence that seems to only grow worse. “Yes, we must kill them before they kill us. Those who threaten Israel’s survival must be killed at all costs.” “No, the killings accomplish nothing and make things worse. We need to find a way to make peace”.
The questions we ask ourselves have to do with “right”. Who is right? Who is most oppressed? At Baal Peor, the fledgling people Israel were enticed by pagan practices. Then, a prominent member of the community boldly and egregiously commits an act of harlotry and idolatry in plain sight of Moses and the community. Pinchas, waiting for nothing and consulting with no one, takes a spear and runs them through. At once, the plague that has afflicted Israel is ended, and Pinchas receives the gift of peace. The immediate question that comes to mind is, “Is Pinchas justified or not?” Perhaps the question we should be asking instead is, “What does his action do to him? What is the aftereffect of this violent act upon him, upon his character, his psyche?”
Several later commentators did just that, and they understand God’s granting of the priesthood to Pinchas and his descendants not as a reward for his extremism, but as an antidote to it. The K’tav Sofer says, “This will protect Pinchas from the destructive impulse within him.” And Naftali Zvi Berlin, a 19th century rabbi, in his Torah commentary Ha Emek Davar includes an extensive passage on the character of Pinchas. He believed that, while Pinchas acted out of deep conviction and felt that he was justified, that he must have, afterwards, been deeply disturbed by his zealous and impulsive act. Berlin explains that this is why God grants him a covenant of peace—not as a reward, but as a cure. Berlin says, “The covenant is meant to calm him, so that he should not be quick-tempered or angry. Since the nature of his act, killing with his own hands, tended to leave his heart filled with intense emotional unrest, God provides a means to soothe him so that he can cope with his situation and find tranquility of soul.”
Note that none of the commentators who criticize Pinchas’ action say that his act was unprovoked. There is no excuse given for Zimri’s bold and arrogant act of idolatry. What Pinchas’ detractors find most problematic is that his action, however necessary it might have been, should not be cause for the glorification and reward that he appears to get from God.
The essay on this portion in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary points out: “In the text of the Torah scroll, the letter yod in Pinchas’ name in the second verse is written smaller than the other letters. When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God) is diminished thereby. In verse 12, the letter vav in shalom is written with a break in the stem. This is interpreted homiletically to suggest that the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one’s opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace.”
Many years ago, in 1973, Golda Meir was quoted as saying, “It is true we have won all our wars, but we have paid for them. We don’t want victories anymore.” We do pay for winning wars, for killing, for all acts of violence, whether justified or not. When we commit violence, when we witness violence, when we countenance violence, our yod grows smaller; the God in us is diminished.