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Parashat 07/02/2010

Parashat Pinchas

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

Therefore say, “Behold! I give him My covenant of peace.

Our Parashah begins seemingly in the middle of a story.  Parashat Balak ends with a leader of the tribe of Shimon and his Midianite mistress publicly flouting both law and the Israelite leadership, and both taking a spear through the gut from Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon, the ultimate peacemaker of Israel.  Leaving aside issues surrounding the legality of Pinchas’ action, it appears curious that Gd would give Pinchas a reward that specifically references peace for an act that seems anything but peaceful.

To understand this, first note that the root that we generally translate as “peace” actually means “wholeness” – l’shalem means to make whole (as when the cabbie in Tel Aviv says “na l’shalem” = “please pay up” as you’re getting out) and therefore “My covenant of peace” indicates a level of integration previously missing, and one which will persist.  Indeed Malbim notes that Pinchas lived to an extremely old age (and served as Kohen Gadol); the Midrash states that he was the Kohen Gadol in the time of Yiftach during the age of the Judges, several centuries after the Exodus.

Indeed, Gd actually gives the reason for granting His covenant to Pinchas:

Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the Kohen has turned back my anger from the Israelites, for he was zealous with My zealousness among them.

The word I have translated “zealous” is also used for a “jealous” husband (the two words are obviously related – J and Z alternate in various languages – for example Hebrew, which has no native J sound, uses a Z with an apostrophe to indicate a J sound in loan words, as in King Z’eorZ’e Street).  Thus it has to do with a situation of betrayal; one has transferred loyalty from its rightful object to someone or something else.  In our case, the Israelites’ loyalty was transferred from Gd to their own lusts and perversions.  The reaction was a plague that destroyed 24,000 Jews, and was only stopped by Pinchas’ zealous action.  Thus the deaths of two people (Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, daughter of one of the leaders of Midian) saved the lives of countless others.

What comes out of this is that the distinctly “unpeaceful” actions of Pinchas actually restored harmony and integration between Gd and Israel.  It is unfortunate that it took such shocking behavior to bring people to their senses, but we have seen this phenomenon many times even in recent history.   For example, the second World War was brought to an end by dropping the first atomic bombs on Japan.  This resulted in approximately 250,000 deaths.  The alternative would very likely have been an invasion of Japan, which would have resulted in many times that many casualties among the Japanese, and heavy casualties among our forces as well (as the battle for Okinawa amply proved).  It can be argued that had the West confronted and destroyed Hitler in the 1930’s much of the devastation and suffering of WW II in Europe could have been averted, including the Holocaust.

Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing.’  Judaism has never subscribed to the “turn the other cheek” philosophy.  Judaism teaches that evil must be confronted; hence the injunction to destroy Amalek, the embodiment of evil.  It is unfortunate that in the West we seem to have lost the understanding that evil exists and will destroy that which is good and holy if given a chance.  Our Sages tell us that “he who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”  Our experience with Hitler is a clear indication of their wisdom, and we seem to be ignoring that lesson, to our peril, at this very moment.

If we understand evil to be the forces of dis-integration, then confronting and defeating evil means creating a higher level of integration in the universe.  Unfortunately, this can sometimes be a messy business, but experience throughout the ages teaches us that the result of inaction is much messier.  There are many ways that one can confront evil; one important battleground that we all share is to eradicate evil within ourselves.  Once we have integrated our own personality, as Pinchas did, we will all be better prepared to raise the level of integration of all of our surroundings.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 12

Hillel and Shammai received [the tradition] from them [Shemayah and Avtalion]

Hillel said:

Be of the students of Aharon, love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them close to the Torah

Pinchas is identified as the grandson of Aharon specifically to emphasize that his characteristic was that he was peace-loving.  Aharon, the Midrash tells us, used to go to individuals who were quarreling and tell each one that the other desperately wanted to heal the quarrel.  When they would get together they would embrace and make up.  Aharon bent the truth perhaps, but the result was a greater level of integration in the community.  In addition, the sacrificial service in the Tabernacle increased peace between Israel and Gd.  Aharon’s descendents, the Kohanim, bless the congregation of Israel with peace with Birkat Kohanim in the daily service (among Sephardim) or during the Festivals (among Ashkenazim).  Hillel’s dictum however is not addressed only to Aharon’s descendents – it is addressed to every one of us.  We may not all be privileged to be Kohanim, but we can certainly all be students of Aharon, never missing an opportunity to improve the lives of those around us and of the communities in which we live.