July 10, 2020
Chapter 25 of the book of Numbers narrates the story of Aaron’s grandson Pinchas’ “zealous” behavior. The narrative goes like this: When the Israelites settled in Shittim, during their forty-year stay in the desert under the rule of Moses, many of them disobeyed God’s command (what else is new?). They accepted the deceptive invitation of the Moabites and Midianites who had invited them to participate in their celebrations and alternative rituals. The non-Israelites were certain that this event would lead Moses’ people to idol worship; and it did.
The Torah goes on to say that God reacted by launching a devastating plague and by instructing Moses to round up the leaders of the rebellion and kill them (shades of Korach?). Before the command could be implemented, one of the Israelite rebels, a tribal leader, in shocking and brazen disregard of God and Moses, carried a Midianite woman to the sacred Tent of Meeting and, arrogantly, had engaged her physically in public view.
While Moses and other Israelites looked on, immobilized by shock, Pinchas rose, grasped a spear and pierced the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, killing them both. Pinchas’ act halted the plague, which had killed twenty four thousand Israelites.
As a result of this intervention, Pinchas was awarded a place among the priests. Interesting to note that, being the son of a priest in the first place, he was not selected for priestly service until this zealous demonstration.
On its face, one can see this as an impulsive action of loyalty or patriotism toward God, Moses and the Israelites. That is on its face. Remember that the Torah only gives us part of the picture. The Torah tells us what happens but does not give us much in the way of back-stories or thought processes. These back-stories and thought processes have been left for every generation to retell based upon their understanding of the context of the moment, what later sages, rabbis and commentators had to say and how this might be interpreted in today’s world.
Many commentators, including Rashi, promoted the interpretation that Pinchas was not overzealous but acting patriotically and with vision. Seeing that a dissenter went from verbal to a physical demonstration of cultural deviation, this was enough for Pinchas, having been steeped in the cultural and ritual norms to the highest degree but not yet accepted into the functional priesthood, he acted out what everyone else was thinking. In so doing, he expressed his fealty to the God, Moses and the Israelites in the most demonstrative fashion possible. Other scholars, have noted that, since Moses acted similarly toward a rock, how is it possible for Pinchas to be lauded and elevated? Shouldn’t Pinchas had intervened by getting in between the two perpetrators and, at least, start a conversation as to the wisdom behind such an impulsive and selfish demonstration? Numbers Rabbah 21:1 inferred that the rebellious action threatened to kill the Israelites by assimilation and that Pinchas was defending the existence of the Israelites. More modern scholars have debated this event extensively and each side has made
If Pinchas were living today, and placed in a similar situation, would he act the same way he did 3500 years ago? We really can’t answer that question completely, but we can form our own opinions. Maybe Pinchas had already thought this through in the moment because he saw so much divisiveness his whole life. Maybe the setting, timing and his maturity came together at that moment to allow him to be at peace with
his action even before he picked up that spear. Maybe he felt that his people were already on the precipice of total assimilation and dissolution that he was willing to give his life for the possibility of saving his people. Could this have been a story, on the heals of the “rock” incident where God showed Moses when corporal intervention is appropriate?
How many movies have we seen where all appears lost in a frontal battle between good and bad, and just at the moment when bad seems to be winning, here comes one intrepid figure to run against the tide and lead the seemingly disheartened army to victory (roll credits here now)? This drama also plays out every day and in many large and small ways. Acts of heroism, patriotism and altruism are viewed as such only when they are carefully 2 thought out based upon a clear and complete knowledge of the history and intent of the situation. The decision to act out is done so without self-purpose but rather for the sake of the future of a people. On the other hand, if peace at all cost is all that there is available, can we say that we have exhausted all other avenues toward peace before the radical act of putting lives at risk must be in play? These kinds of scenarios and decisions are difficult at best, life-altering and, at times, paralyzing. The Israelites became paralyzed at the sight of such a brazen act of rebellion. I believe that most of the followers of God and Moses would have acted in the same manner as Pinchas, it’s just that Pinchas was the first one to “cast the first spear”. He broke the mass hypnosis of indecision because of his understanding of the consequences from past experiences, coupled with his deep sense of duty and leadership. He was chosen for that moment and he chose to accept it and its outcomes.
How many of us have been placed in such a position today? We make decisions that alter the course of our lives sometimes many times every day. From the mundane act of what to eat, to taking a route to a destination, to choosing the same or a different business or professional relationship, the challenges add up. Over time, as adults, we have been conditioned through the exercise of experience so many decisions seem reflexive. Those unique, or novel situations can cause us to pause and evaluate the consequences, but we can’t often enjoy a cavalier process when making a life-changing decision. The urgency of the moment demands a “now or never” gesture, and so we move.
Belief in your cause, faith in your conviction, strength from whatever spirit supports you and the means by which you can intervene for the sake of “Shalom Bayit” – “Peace in Your Home” will help you to be an activist for a whole, meaningful and unified future.
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