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Parashat Pinchas 5773 — 06/26/2013

Parashat Pinchas 5773 — 06/26/2013

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen has turned back My wrath from upon the people of Israel … Therefore say: I hereby give him My covenant of Peace  And it shall be for him and his descendants after him an eternal covenant of priesthood, since he was zealous for his Gd and atoned for the people of Israel.  (25:11-13)

Peace is our profession. (Motto of the Strategic Air Command)

It takes a thorn to remove a thorn.  (Indian saying)

The time is out of joint. O cursed spite/That ever I was born to set it right (Hamlet I:5)

The association of killing with peace appears a bit jarring.  The Strategic Air Command’s mission, inter alia, was to make sure that any Soviet attack on the US would be met with a response that would make the 20 million Soviet deaths in WW II pale in comparison – mutual assured destruction.  While in fact the conflicts between the US and the Soviet Union remained more or less peripheral in the almost half-century between WW II and the fall of the Soviet Union, nobody would argue that the world experienced “peace” in any meaningful sense of the word.  It has become almost a cliché that peace is not just the absence of war.

The halachah has something to say about this as well.  Any kohen who kills a person, even accidentally, is not allowed to serve ever again in the Temple.  I believe that in modern times, when there is no Temple service, some rule that such a Kohen may not be part of the cohort of kohanim giving the priestly blessing in the synagogue.  While this may seem far-fetched to us, in modern Israel where kohanim regularly serve in the IDF and may kill enemy soldiers in combat, it is, unfortunately, not far-fetched at all.  (See for a discussion of this entire issue.  R. Moshe Feinstein is quoted there as ruling that the IDF soldier is not disqualified – perhaps such a situation is analogous to Pinchas’ act, where the killing was justified.)  Yet Pinchas is given a covenant of priesthood specifically because he killed Zimri and Cozbi.

We see a further example of the disconnect between killing and peace when it came time to build the first Temple in Jerusalem.  The impetus for this project came not from Gd, but from King David.  The Prophet Nathan, who was King David’s top advisor, told him to go for it, but Gd appeared to Nathan that night in a dream and told him that He had other ideas.  Since King David was a warrior with blood on his hands, Gd felt it inappropriate for His house of Peace and reconciliation to be built by stained and tainted hands.  In recognition of the fact that King David did not indulge in unjust or gratuitous killing, Gd ordains that his son, Shlomo (from shalom = peace or wholeness) will be the one to build the Temple.  David is allowed to make all the preparations and purchase the site, and indeed, it is in his merit that Gd’s Divine fire miraculously comes down on the altar, but the actual building is done by Shlomo, not David.  It is interesting that Shlomo’s mother is Bat-Sheva, whose husband, Uriah, one of King David’s soldiers, is exposed to the heat of battle on David’s orders.  Upon his death, David marries Bat-Sheva.  Just as Pinchas’ priesthood is associated with killing, so the birth of the Temple’s builder (and incidentally, the birth of Mashiach, who will descend from David via Shlomo) is associated with killing.

This conundrum is apparently universal, as it has been dealt with in other traditions as well.  Hamlet is charged by his father’s ghost to re-establish justice in his kingdom by killing his uncle, who had killed his father and usurped the crown.  Hamlet of course lacks Pinchas’ alacrity; after dithering for 5 acts he finally, in the heat of a duel with someone else, carries out the execution.  Perhaps it is because of this dithering that the young Hamlet perishes himself.  His reward is not a covenant of peace, but simply “silence.”

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Arjuna, the greatest warrior of his age, is confronted with a war begun by his evil cousins.  Again, he must kill them to restore order in the cosmos; like Pinchas he is required to kill family members, making the task that much harder.  In 18 chapters of discourse, Arjuna is taught that the overriding consideration is dharma – that harmonious interrealtionship between all the parts of a system which is right and correct for the society and for the cosmos.  If it is necessary to remove someone who is seriously disrupting dharma, then that is the higher good.  Failure to act, on the other hand, would be sinful and self-destructive.

Obviously we need to expand our conception of “peace” if we are to be able to reconcile these apparently conflicting notions.  R. Yissachar Frand, in a drash published in  5759 (1999) says:

It is said in the name of Reb Chaim Soleveitchik that people have a misconception about the meaning of “peace.” They think that “peace” means that no matter what happens, there should be tranquility and not be any fights. However, that is not the meaning of Shalom [peace]. Shalom comes from the word shalem (perfection). Shalom really means perfection – the ultimate right. The ultimate right is when there is perfection between HaShem and His nation.

When a husband and wife are acting properly there is Shalom between them and there is Shalom between them and Hashem. That represents perfection (shleimut). If there are no arguments among the Jewish people, but there is friction and tension and division between Klal Yisroel and HaShern – that is not Shalom. Without unity and harmony between the Jews and the Master of the World, there is no Shalom. Therefore, things can be patched over and everyone can “make nice and feel good,” but if there is a division and gap between the nation and their Gd, this is not Shalom.

We have often discussed that the creation is structured in layers.  Modern physics tells us this with respect to physical creation, and there are non-physical layers beneath physical creation.  At the “center” of this layered structure is Gd, Who is unified and perfect.  Since Gd has no “parts,” but is just pure Being, we cannot really speak of a perfect structure in the way we normally think of it, but it is clear that all the differences we experience become more unified as we go to subtler layers (this is, again, verified by modern Physics for physical creation).  Ultimately, all differences are unified in Gd.

As we begin to move away from the center, Gd’s light, as it were, becomes occluded, more and more with increasing “distance.”  As this happens, unity dominates less and less, and differences begin to become prominent.  Dis-integration can enter the picture – the perfect harmony of Gd is broken, not only on one particular level, but the harmony that joins all levels together is broken.  Since the purpose of creation is to reflect Gd’s infinite perfection in the finite, such disharmony vitiates the entire enterprise, and causes suffering to all involved.  Whatever is causing the disharmony must be removed.

Let’s make this perfectly concrete.  I am writing this the day after Yom haShoah.  Can anyone argue that killing Hitler or any of his henchmen would have been wrong?   Would any Chinese or Korean or Filipino or anyone else in Asia argue that fighting the Japanese, even with nuclear weapons, was unjustified killing?  These were evil regimes and had to be destroyed.  Had they been destroyed earlier, how much destruction of life and property could have been saved?  The same point can obviously be made with the evil that still exists today, much of it threatening Israel.

Pinchas’ actions restored the harmony between Gd and Israel.  Unfortunately, things had gotten to a point where the only way to accomplish this was through violence.  We would all be a lot better off if we were able to make small course corrections whenever we began to veer from the path Gd has set out for us.  For this we need both knowledge and enlightened guidance.  The knowledge has been given to us in Torah and tradition.  We can only pray for the enlightened guidance, for the wisdom to recognize it, the humility to accede to it, and the strength to follow it.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 1

[The Men of the Great Assembly] said three things: …  (2) Set up many students …

Biologists have identified two basic strategies that species adopt to maximize their reproductive success.  Some species have few offspring, but invest considerable resources in each one, so that each one has a greater chance to survive and eventually reproduce.  Human beings are the obvious example (multiple births, e.g. triplets, are quite rare …).  Other species (e.g. most fish) produce large numbers of offspring, and then let them fend for themselves.  While the odds are stacked against any individual, the overwhelming number of individuals gives the entire cohort a chance for growth.  Rabbi Lau analyzes the Hebrew word for many (harbei) in our Mishnah and concludes that in fact, both the quality approach and the quantity approach can be justified from the language of the Mishnah.  In fact, the Talmud gives examples of both.  Rabban Gamliel, when he was President of the Sanhedrin, allowed only the best students to attend the sessions.  When he was removed in favor of R. Elazar ben Azariah, the doors were flung open and many hundreds of additional students began to attend.  The Sages looked at this change favorably.  On the other side, Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students who all died during a plague (this was during the counting of the Omer – the plague ended on Lag b’Omer, which became a semi-holiday).  He then raised up 5 disciples, including R. Me’ir and R. Shimon bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar, who are the founding pillars of Rabbinic Judaism.  Obviously this is also a valid approach.  In any event, whenever we act, we are also teaching – we are expressing our values and the content of our character.  Let’s be sure that whoever is watching or hearing us, be it one person or millions, is getting a proper lesson!