“If Your Torah was not my source of inspired delight, I would surely succumb to the afflictions and vicissitudes of life!” Psalms 119:92
I never cease to marvel at the profundity, relevance and contemporaneity of our holy Torah’s teachings; and I never tire of the creativity, ingenuity and inspired playfulness of our wise rabbinic Sages’ glosses to our Sacred Writ.
These statements were never truer than when we explore the text and commentaries associated with this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas — the 8th sidra in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers).
Pinchas, the son of Elazar and grandson of the high priest of ancient Israel — Aharon — apparently moved by his uncontrollable passion and zeal for the Almighty, kills an Israelite man and Midianite woman who are engaged in illicit behavior in the public domain. Somewhat surprisingly, this impetuous act of violent zealotry seems to secure for Pinchas and his descendants a Brit Shalom, an eternal Covenant of Peace. Moreover, he and the members of his kin will forever be “blessed” to be in service to God, the Temple cult and God’s treasured people.
At first blush, it would appear that Pinchas’ act of extremism and brutality is rewarded. After all, he is granted the special status of one who enjoys — in perpetuity — God’s gift of a Pact of Peace. However, a good number of our biblical commentators and exegetes (see for example the majestic writings of Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin in his masterful 19th century commentary to the Torah known as HaAmek Davar – “Delve Deeply into the Matter”) view God’s Brit Shalom and the responsibility to serve as Kohanim — facilitators of the rites and rituals which draw the people ever closer to their Heavenly Parent — not as a reward for stellar behavior, but rather as a corrective to a dangerous and destructive character flaw within Pinchas and potentially an “inherited genetic predisposition” within his progeny.
The Brit Shalom comes not so much as a reward, but much more as a vehicle to chasten, vitiate and suppress the predilection towards unfettered brutality and unmitigated militancy. Service in the House of God provides a “constructive outlet” for the potentially destructive energy and misplaced exuberance of Pinchas’ family.
Clearly, the pshat — the plain and simple understanding — of the biblical text would lead us to valorize and seek to emulate the behavior of our Torah portion’s namesake and protagonist, Pinchas. Yet, our rabbinic tradition presents another, alternative way in which to understand the significance of this section of Scripture. This passage comes not to fan the flames of violence that burn hotly and organically within the human animal, but rather as impetus to act — especially at moments of great passion and enthusiasm — in a manner that is “against type” and thus helps us refine and elevate ourselves and our lives.
Interestingly, when our Tradition speaks of the Kehunah, when it mentions the Priesthood, it always ties this eminent office back to Aharon; there is nary a mention of Pinchas. The rationale for the omission of Pinchas seems abundantly clear. Our heroes and heroines — those whose example we hope to follow — are not those who represent and promote violence and vengeance, but rather those who seek out peaceful and diplomatic resolutions to the challenges we face.
As we are taught in Pirkei Avot — The Ethics of our Sages (1:12) and words which many of us recite daily as part of our morning prayers: “Hillel taught: Be of the students of Aharon, the high priest. A lover of peace; a pursuer of peace; one who loves all creatures; and seeks to draw humanity ever-closer to the wise ways of Torah.”
May our encounter with Parashat Pinchas this coming Shabbat catalyze our individual and communal aspiration to live ever-more elevated, lofty, transcendent and noble lives.