Aaron Benson

Pinchas and Tevye

In the Image of God

Pinchas is probably my favorite character in the Torah.  If I could have gotten away with it, one of my boys would have been Phineas in English and Pinchas in Hebrew.  The Hebrew would have been okay, but I think Phineas might not have been the name of the most popular kid on the playground, if you catch my drift.  Yet something about the Pinchas’ decisiveness is appealing to me, something about his ability to see that occasionally, the only answer to a problem is a violent one – and that his ability to know when it is called for, and when it isn’t, is rewarded with God’s Brit Shalom – covenant of peace – that is just such a powerful lesson.

You’ll recall, I’m sure, the scene in Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye responds to an argument two of his friends are having, “he’s right and he’s right.”  He is challenged, “they can’t both be right!” to which he responds – you’re right!”

Seeing the “other side” as Tevye can, is an important trait for a Jew – we aren’t meant to just accept blindly.  Pinchas must have been expert at this for he knew that while killing is an extreme response, it is not inherently, universally evil.  For many of us, knowing “who’s right” when it comes to such consequential decisions isn’t as easy.

Like with Pinchas – I’m sure Zimri and Cozbi would have had a justification for their behavior, but whatever it would have been, it would have been wrong.

There are certainly times when the decisiveness of Pinchas is desirable and even required, but I think, most of the time, we need to have a little more of the Tevye in us than the Pinchas – particularly when we are not dealing with Midianites Princesses or Moabite Wizards or even Islamic Extremists as Israel has had to do in recent days – those are all times to bring on the Pinchas.

But when it comes to our own lives, and when it comes to our own Jewish communities – then I think we need the Tevye.

Let me express this as a little challenge, a little test:  I want you to think of the last time that you stood up for, or defended, the opinions or actions of someone with whom you disagreed.  When was it?  Was it ever?

It needn’t be something dramatic – I’m saying, when was the last time you said, “I’ll defend your right to be, as I see it, wrong on this issue, because respect for each other, the worth of each person, is a principle far greater.”

Two things are true regarding this:  1) we don’t consciously do this anywhere near enough, and 2) we all know inherently we should.

You disagree?  Let me ask you, who is married?  Who has ever had an argument in your marriage or a long-standing annoyance/pet-peeve about your spouse?

If your spouse changed their behavior or attitude or whatever it was, – tell me what you did to make that happen, I’d like to know.

But if after 40 years, it’s still the same – I’m betting that you’ve accepted how they load the dishwasher, because your love, friendship, and family, are far more important.  And if you can do that with one person, you can apply the same thinking to many others.  Does a different political opinion mean a person isn’t still a human?  Someone have a lifestyle different from your own – are they not a creature of God deserving even the slightest interest in understanding them better?  I think so.

And even more when we speak about our own Jewish communities.  We’re part of the same family as well!  We mustn’t let even significant differences of opinion, practice, or belief, alienate us from our fellow Jews.

I’m not saying you need to join causes you hate, and I’m not saying that you should stop trying to convince the person with whom you disagree to change his or her mind.

Nor am I saying that there aren’t times when one must fight like a Pinchas for what you believe.  Even Tevye, as we know, could reach a point past which he couldn’t bend without breaking.

Still, we can never forget that every human, is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God, and thus deserving of some amount of respect – respect which we show when we think just a little about why that other person thinks or does whatever they do.

So next time your up against some moron who just doesn’t get it – before you “bring it” before you escalate the argument – try and see what comes about from really trying to see it from their side… and then keep going.

It seems to me that if we can do that, whether its Pinchas’ Covenant of Peace, or its Tevye’s Tradition – whatever we call it, we will be honoring God’s Will through acting so thoughtfully about God’s creatures, our fellow human beings.

About the Author
Aaron Benson is a Conservative rabbi on Long Island, serving at the North Shore Jewish Center. He is the current president of the Suffolk County Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Suffolk County Police Department.
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