Thursday, 09 Jul 2015

Written by Kath Vardi

What does it mean to hear God’s voice? To be able to discern what God wants? How do we know that what we hear is indeed what is being said?

The story from which this week’s parashah takes its name, Pinchas, is one of zealotry and murder. In last week’s portion Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the priest, impales Zimri, an Israelite man and Cozbi, a Midianite, as they embark upon sexual relations. And this week we are told that his actions stop God’s plague in its tracks; a plague brought in response to the idolatrous relations of the Israelite men with the Moabite women that had so enraged God. But it seems that as Pinchas murders in zealous righteousness –  God is pleased…

For God not only extends the office of the priesthood upon Pinchas and his descendants but he additionally grants him a brit shalom – a Covenant of Peace – before telling Moses to now go out and assail the Midianites and defeat them: a command that seems to extend the zealotry of Pinchas even further. This I suspect, is not a Divine response that leaves many of us feeling comfortable or satisfied.

The traditional commentators attempt to provide explanation for Pinchas’s actions. Rashi rationalises God’s response to Pinchas as being one of relief. He argues that God understands that Pinchas has done Him a favour.  Pinchas has not only stalled the plague but in killing Zimri and Cozbi he has also stalled God’s anger against the Israelites, preventing many other deaths over and above the 24, 000 that had already died – his actions have satisfied God’s passions. In other words – “Guys, it could have been a LOT worse…”

The midrash argues that those killed were not so innocent as it seemed, claiming that Zimri was a descendent of the House of Simeon. Simeon was the tribe that was decreed to be scattered among the cities of Judah as punishment for Simeon’s part in the massacre of Shechem and so Zimri’s lineage was such that his character and his actions could also be questioned.  In addition we are told that Cozbi a Midianite princess had been deliberately sent by the King to interact sexually with prominent Israelite men, and, if that were not sufficient, that the pair were about to undertake to have conjugal relations in the mouth of the Tent of Meeting!

In other words, the sum of all these explanations is that – they were not so innocent after all …. 

But is this good enough? Are we satisfied with Rashi’s exercise in apologetics and the midrash’s attempt at character assassination? Is God’s desire for vengeance against those who have gone astray justified? Indeed is this the voice of God? When God orders dissenters to be impaled before the community, or praises the murderous actions of one man, is this God’s voice? And if indeed it is, how do we respond? Are there times when we need to shut our ears? Are maybe these the times, that like Abraham at Sodom and Gomorrah, we have to turn to God and argue? Do we have to stand up to God and refuse? Ultimately where does our responsibility start and God’s command end? Reading this week’s portion’s answers to these questions seem very remote.

However, for all the apologetics of the rabbis and later commentators, there is another dissenting voice, but it is both more subtle and more hidden. And we have to look to this week’s haftarah to find it; the reading from the Prophets that may have been paired with our Torah readings by the rabbis in response to the ban of public readings from the Torah under the Seleucids around 168 C.E

For this weeks haftarah is the story of the other zealot of Jewish tradition, Elijah the prophet. Elijah is a wild man, filled, like Pinchas, with a passion for God.  Like Pinchas he crusades against idolatry and we are told, is responsible for killing all of the prophets of the god Baal. And yet despite all of this zealotry in the name of God, he ultimately remains alone and persecuted.

Having fled fearing for his life, he prays to God for death, declaring ‘It’s too much! Take my life now Eternal One; I am no better than my forebears.’ What does Elijah mean when he makes this cry to God that he is no better than his forbears? The Zohar tells us that Elijah is in fact Pinchas, and therefore that God’s seemingly incongruent Brit Shalom was an opportunity and a challenge to the young Pinchas. It was a challenge that he was to meet through many reincarnations: The covenant of peace, of wholeness, was to be worked towards as he faced life’s battles and in fact was not something which was simply being bestowed, as it appears in our Torah reading….

God did not simply reward Pinchas’s actions with title and good fortune. He issued Pinchas a challenge, a challenge which comes to its conclusion in the story of Elijah. The Zohar tells us that Pinchas was filled with a passion for God which needed time to mature and so his soul joined with the soul of Elijah another prophet of God who strived to fulfil the word of God with passion and zeal.

But sadly when we encounter Pinchas/Elijah in our haftarah we understand that they have struggled to meet God’s challenge of finding peace and wholeness. Elijah has stood up for God relentlessly and yet we find him praying for death. But having done so Elijah is then directed by an angel towards Mount Horeb, God’s mountain, where God speaks. What follows is both beautiful and profoundly moving, for Elijah (Pinchas) is struggling. He is struggling to hear God. He believes that he has already discerned God speaking, that he has understood God’s commands and that as His faithful servant and prophet, he has acted righteously. But we discover that he is wrong and that ultimately he has misheard. God, understanding that Elijah (Pinchas) still cannot hear, brings him up into Heaven, and it is from here that tradition tells us that Elijah (Pinchas) continues to reincarnate and joins us at times of celebration and of distress and great danger.

I think that the rabbis knew exactly what they were doing when they paired up this haftarah reading with our portion this week. They were offering us possible answers, but they were also asking us a question.

How does God speak?

At the mouth of the cave, God turns to Elijah and asks:

‘Why are you here, Elijah?

To which he replies, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.

Hearing this God says

“Come out  – and stand on the mountain before the LORD.”

Pinchas/Elijah having killed in God’s name, having yearned for the righteousness of his fellows, so much so that he has been willing to murder to ensure that others comply, is now confounded by what happens next.

And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind.
After the wind – an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
After the earthquake – fire; but the LORD was not in the fire.
And after the fire – a soft murmuring sound.
Kol damma dakkah – a still small voice.

God’s voice. Not in the quaking of mountains, or the fire or the whirlwind, but in the whisper. And Pinchas/Elijah is unable to hear, he is unable to comprehend that the voice of God is ultimately barely heard. That it is in those moments of stillness after the chaos has ceased that God’s voice may be discerned. It is not in the height of battle, nor in the throes of passion, judgement and righteousness that God’s will can be detected, but rather in those moments after the storm, when the tempest has died that God has the space to speak, and we have the peace and quiet in which to hear.

Student Rabbi Kath Vardi


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