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Pinchas: The Dangers of the Politics of Power

Almost every month another movie is released from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While I cannot say I am an expert in these films, one of the salient themes that emerges throughout these films is the very real temptation of power, and that superheroes with limitless power can be corrupted when these very powers are left unchecked.  The Hulk is a case in point, a nuclear physicist who becomes a superhuman monster when he becomes angry.  The creators of the character give him almost limitless physical power; The Hulk can smash anything he sees fit.  However, this superhuman ability creates a challenge for The Hulk’s alter ego, Bruce Banner.  Who is controlling whom at a moment of acute fury?  At what point will The Hulk execute justice and when will his violent nature create chaos and destruction?

“Who is a warrior (gibbor)?  One who vanquishes their inner nature” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). The rabbis point to the fact that often the most important battles are not when we vanquish the enemy from without, but the enemy from within.

Our parashah opens with the aftermath of a shocking act of religious zealotry and violence.  Let us recap.  At the end of last week’s parashah, the Children of Israel engage in licentiousness and idolatry in the episode of Baal Peor.  In the process they consort with the Moabite women.  The people throw off all limits, and it seems that the senior leaders themselves are behind this.  A plague ensues killing 24,000 people, and Moses himself convenes the judges to execute the heads of the tribes, trying to stay the plague.  In the heat of the moment, the head of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Saloo takes a Midianite princess and appears to have carnal relations with her in front of Moses.  Not only is this brazen act explicit, but it seems to be a direct challenge to Moses, the leader who married a Midianite woman.  In other words, Zimri’s act is not simply an act of licentiousness, but it is a political challenge to Moses.  “Who are you Moses, to forbid consorting with Moabite women?  You consort with a Midianite woman yourself!”

In the midst of all of this, Pinchas ben Elazar, the grandson of the recently deceased Aaron the High Priest takes matters into his own hands.  What seems like vigilante justice, he takes a spear into his hand and stabs them both through the stomach, and the plague is stayed. If we were drawing a graphic comic book, we might imagine Pinchas leaping in the air, eyes burning in fury, and plunging a gleaming spear into the flesh of these two people.  Yet, far from condemning this act, God seems to agree to his zealousness, blessing him with “an everlasting covenant of peace” (Numbers 25:12).  Clearly, this specific text admits to the fact that there are times when violence is justified, but can or should this narrative be a model for future behavior?  Rabbinic texts struggle between praising Pinchas and invoking his behavior as a normative model.  Perhaps Pinchas had legitimate and justifiable reasons (l’shem shamaim), but will every future ‘Pinchas’ have such pure motives, lacking in any self-interest?  Furthermore, what could the ‘covenant of peace’ granted to Pinchas possibly mean?  Would not God give him a ‘covenant or strength’ or ‘covenant of valor.’

To answer this question, we should note that Pinchas’ act is confounding.  Did he not consider his own family history? He would have known that his grandfather Aaron was specifically known as rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace and harmony.  It is interesting to note that the military word rodef (pursue) is being invoked in the context of peace; Aaron pursues peace as much as many pursue their enemies! This peace-playing role is an extension of Aaron’s ritual role as the first High Priest, offering sacrifices and gaining expiation and forgiveness of the Jewish people.  The priests were supposed to be people of the spirit, not people of war.  What would his late grandfather Aaron have said to him?  Would he have agreed to this?

The notion of a Cohen as a peacemaker has practical relevance in modern Jewish law.  One of the few mitzvot of the Cohanim still observed today is to duchan or say the priestly blessings to the congregation in synagogue.   The priestly blessings conclude with the verse “May God shine His countenance upon you and grant you peace” (Number 26:6).  Rabbi Yosef Caro rules in the Shulchan Arukh (the 16th century Code of Jewish law) that a Cohen who has killed another human being, even inadvertently, cannot raise his hands in prayer to bless the people.  Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the sixteenth century leader of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, tempers this by saying if one has done repentance, we may be lenient and allow him.  The Talmud quotes the reason in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, quoting Isaiah 1:11, “And when you spread your hands [in prayer] I will hide my eyes from you… your hands are full of blood.”  (Orach Chaim 128:35, T.B. Berachot 32b)

Did Pinchas not feel unworthy, that he somehow compromised his own holiness in the killing of another?  Yet, at the same time, his radical and violent act prevented further violence.  As far as I can tell, the text is unambiguous that this unprecedented moment required unprecedented action, and when no one else stepped forward, Pinchas did.

The Spanish exegete Abravanel presents a telling explanation, which I believe can help us understand the jarring image of the priest-warrior, and the accompanying blessing of a ‘covenant of peace.’  Abravanel writes that Pinchas is identified as the grandson of Aaron because he went against his very nature and tradition to take up the sword.  Indeed, violence is not his ideal existence, which is to don the priestly vestments, not gird the sword and shield.  The blessing of an everlasting priesthood is to ensure him that although he had shed blood, he and his descendants will not be disqualified from serving God, which is what we may have assumed.  Pinchas rose to the historic moment; there is a certainly a time for peace, but like Ecclesiastes says, there are also times for war.

Why a ‘covenant of peace’?  Abravanel continues, arguing that these acts are not without a price.  Pinchas also needs to be blessed with the assurances of peace because in acting in such a violent manner he must have created enemies who would seek to avenge the death of their ally or relative.  God promises him peace as a sign to others not to touch him, ‘for who will rise to destroy him when he knows God’s covenant of salvation surrounds him.’ (Abravanel Numbers, Ch. 25).  In modern terminology, God’s protection will intimidate all who conspire to do him harm; it is a form of ‘Divine deterrence.’  In needing to bless Pinchas with peace we are led to consider the ultimate price we pay for the use of violence. After this episode, we consider whether Pinchas could ever be trusted again to bring others close to the Divine.  Indeed, in Abravanel’s reading, Pinchas’ actions are both praiseworthy but tragic.  He points to the limits of hard power to end conflict.

However, the use of violence and power- even when necessary- does not only threaten possible further violence, but also threatens the internal equilibrium of the person exercising that violence and power.  Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin (1813-1896), known by his acronym Netziv, introduces another explanation of this ‘everlasting covenant of peace’.  He mentions that when one exercises violence there is a danger that they become consumed by it.  Their character becomes coarser and are more likely to use force and power even when it is not necessary. Thus, God blesses Pinchas with the equilibrium to remain a peace-loving person.  In other words, violence poses a fundamental danger in unraveling the fundamental character of a person.  Like the initial image of The Hulk, can one control this anarchic force of the soul once it is released, or will one become one with its power?  Are we controlling violence, or will violence control us?

As a postscript, it is relevant to note the showdown between Pinchas and Zimri is a showdown between a descendent of Levi and a descendent of Shimon.  If you remember in the book of Genesis, both become justly concerned when their sister Dina is sexually abused in Shechem, but both become so consumed by righteous anger that they together proceed to massacre the entire town of Shechem, killing every male.  Whatever just claims they had, their violent response was so disproportionate that Jacob never forgave them, cursing their violent nature at the end of his life, vowing that neither would receive a portion of the land of Israel.  Indeed, neither really did, but their fates were different.  While the tribe of Levi was able to sublimate their violent nature and use it for a higher purpose, the tribe of Shimon could not.  While the children of Levi served in the Tabernacle, channeling their penchant for violence in offering sacrifices to God, the tribe of Shimon here decides to engage in an all-out rebellion against Moses, another descendent of Levi.  For Shimon, the violence and extremism borne in righteous anger to protect a sibling now becomes the source of a challenge against their own sibling.   As a result of their actions, their census numbers experience a precipitous decline in the desert and by the end of the Torah, Moses does not even recognize them with their own blessing!

For most of Jewish history, Jews have been denied hard power, subject to the whims of other people and nations.  With the rise of the State of Israel, the Jewish people have needed to wield the sword.  Implied in the words ‘Never Again’ is the promise that we will assure Jewish survival at all costs, and that as a people we will use force when necessary; this was the driving force of the Zionist movement throughout the twentieth century.  While Jews pray for peace, it is undeniable that at moments in our own modern history, violence needed to be employed, sometimes with devastating impacts.  In some cases, the equation may have been ‘kill or be killed.’  Like Pinchas, there may be critical times in history in which we do not have the time to evaluate every action, as our very survival was at stake.   For some progressive Jews, this notion of Jews and the exercising of power is very distasteful, and this distaste translates into an ambivalence towards Jewish self-determination in the form of the modern Jewish nation state.  To adapt an image coined by Daniel Gordis, these Jews are ‘Isaiah’ Jews ‘beating their swords into ploughshares,’ while the Israelis are “King David Jews,’ who take hold of the sword, vanquishing their enemies.  In truth, Isaiah Jews and King David Jews need to be in constant dialogue and dialectical tension to preserve both the physical safety as well as the moral integrity of the Jewish people.

Parashat Pinchas teaches us that wise and discerning leaders need to remember when to utilize the sword, while at the same time never forget the centrality of the spirit.  We need to remember the lessons of the Abravanel that hard power does not necessarily lead to peace but can beget further violence.  We also need to remember Netziv. True victory happens when we achieve the audacious goal of transforming the darker side of our own character.  The goal is not to simply vanquish external enemies, but the enemies residing within the human heart.  When as a world we will conquer these inner worlds, we will no longer need the swords of war.

“Not through strength and not through might, but through my spirit says the Lord.” (Zechariah 4:6)

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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