Thursday, 10 Jul 2014

Written by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

No biblical figure is so identified with zealotry as is Pinchas.  He steps out in the closing verses of last week’s sidra, so  outraged by the sight of a prince of Israel and a Midianite woman cavorting together that he acts immediately, not waiting for any legal process – he thrusts his spear into the couple as they lie together, and kills them both.

It is horrible to read, but more horrible still is God’s response.  Pinchas is to receive a special reward – “Pinchas is the only one who zealously took up My cause among the Israelites and turned my anger away so that I did not consume the children of Israel in my jealousy.  Therefore tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace” (Num 25:11-12)

Pinchas’ action ended an orgy of idolatry and promiscuity that was endangering the integrity of the people.  But while the outcome was important, the method was terrible. And this rage which led him to act without any inhibition or process is not unique in bible. Remember the young Moses who murdered the Egyptian taskmaster?  Or Elijah who slaughtered the priests of Baal? 

These are events in our history which we cannot ignore, but neither can we celebrate. We have in our ancestry jealous rage and zealotry.  So for example Elijah, having killed hundreds of idolatrous priests and demonstrating to his own satisfaction the falseness of their faith, finds that being zealous for God does not guarantee safety. Queen Jezebel is angered and Elijah had to run for his life to the wilderness.  There he encounters many strange phenomena, but ultimately hears God not in the storms but in the voice of slender silence.

Moses’ act of killing was a little different – a young man who had only recently understood his connection to an enslaved people, he found their treatment unbearable, and when he found an Egyptian beating a Jew he looked around, saw no one so struck him and hid the body in the sands.  Only the next day when he realised he had been seen, did he flee into the wilderness, there to meet God at the bush which burned but which was not consumed. 

And Pinchas, whose act of violence grew from his anger against those who were mingling with the Midianite women and taking up their gods was rewarded by God with a ‘brit shalom’, a covenant of peace and the covenant of the everlasting priesthood. 

 Each of these men killed in anger – anger that God was not being given the proper respect, anger that God’s people were being abused.  None of them repented their action, although Elijah and Moses were certainly depressed, anxious and fearful after the event.  And God’s response seems too mild for our modern tastes.

Yet look at God’s responses a little more closely.  Elijah is rewarded not by a triumphalist God but by the recognition of God in the voice of slender silence –the ‘still small voice’. That voice doesn’t praise him but challenges him – “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  After all the drama Elijah has to come down from his conviction-fuelled orgy of violence and recognise in the cold light of day what he has done.  Only when he leaves behind the histrionics does God become known to him – in that gentle sound of slender silence, and with a question that must throw him back to examine the more profound realities about himself and his own journey.

Moses too is not rewarded with great honour and dramatic encounter – his fleeing from the inevitable punishment is about survival and there is a tradition that Moses did not enter the promised land, not only because of what had happened at the waters of Meribah, but because that action brought to mind the striking of the Egyptian – Moses hadn’t learned to control his temper and his actions even after forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

Moses’ first encounter with God too was so gentle as to be almost missable.  In the far edges of the wilderness alone with his father in law’s sheep this miserable young man saw a bush which burned but which wasn’t burned out.  It is a story we know from childhood, but something we generally don’t recognise is that to notice such a phenomenon in the wilderness where bushes burned regularly, took time – Moses must have stood and watched patiently and carefully before realising there was something different about this fire. There is gentleness and the very antithesis of drama and spectacle, of the immediacy and energy of the zealot.

The reward for Pinchas is also not as it first seems.  God says of him “hineni notein lo et breetee, shalom”.  “Behold, I give him my covenant, peace”.  The Hebrew is not in the construct form, this is not a covenant of peace but a requirement for Pinchas to relate to God with peace, and his method for so doing is to be the priesthood.

The words are written in the torah scroll with an interesting addition – the vav in the word ‘shalom’ has a break in it.  The scribe is drawing our attention to the phrase – the violent man has not been given a covenant of peace but a covenant to be used towards peace – that peace is not yet complete or whole- hence the broken vav – it needs to be completed.

One of the main functions given to the priesthood is to recite the blessing of peace over the people, the blessing with which we end every service but which in bible is recited by priests as a conduit for the blessing from God. 

Rabbi Shimon ben Halafta tells us “there is no vessel that holds a blessing save peace, as it says ‘the Eternal will bless the people with peace’”  In other words, the eternal priesthood given to Pinchas forces him to speak peace, to be a vessel of peace so as to fulfil his priestly function.  In effect, by giving Pinchas “breetee, shalom” God is constraining him and limiting his violence, replacing it with the obligation to promote peace. It is for Pinchas and his descendants to complete the peace of God’s covenant, and they cannot do so if they allow violence to speak.

Each of the three angry men – Moses, Pinchas, Elijah – are recognised as using their anger for the sake of God and the Jewish people, but at the same time each is gently shepherded into a more peaceful place.  And this methodology is continued into the texts of the rabbinic tradition so that by Talmudic times self-righteous zeal is understood as dangerous and damaging and never to take root or be allowed to influence our thinking.

Times change, but people do not – there are still many who would act like Pinchas if they could: every group and every people has them.  Their behaviours arise out of passionate belief and huge certainty in the rightness of those beliefs.  Rational argument will never prevail against them, but gentle patient and persistent focusing on the goal of peace, our never forgetting the need for peace, must temper our zealots. Every tradition has its zealots and its texts of zealotry, but every tradition also has those who moderate and mitigate, who look for the longer game and the larger goal. We must keep asking ourselves, which group are we in today?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild
Ordained LBC 1987

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.