Arik Ascherman
Arik Ascherman

The Temple Mount Attack, Pinkhas, and Healing the Broken Vav

For many years, I viewed Pinkhas as a dangerous vigilante. I was troubled by the fact that God says at the beginning of our portion that God is granting Pinkhas a “Brit Shalom,” (Covenant of Peace) for having taken the law into his hands, and killing Zimri and Cozbi at the end of last week’s Torah portion. I also found it difficult to deal with the fact that Pinkhas’s act appeased God’s anger, stopped the plague that had been caused by Midianite women sexually tempting the Israelite men into idolatry. In more recent years I have frequently argued that Pinkhas was not a vigilante. He was, in fact doing just what God and Moses commanded, “Adonai said to Moses, ‘Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before Adonai, so that Adonai’s wrath may turn away from Israel.” So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.'” Numbers 25:4-5)

This year, influenced both by the terrible act of terror that took place today on the Temple Mount/Haram Al Sharif, by the knife attack on me in October 2015, the attack on me and others by hilltop youth this last April, and so many other acts of violence and evil, I am thinking about the fact that many of these acts are inspired by leaders. We don’t yet know much about the terrorists and their motives. However, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were influenced by the mantra in recent years “Al Aqsa is in danger.” While I know that some will reject or even be angry at any comparison between today’s terrorists and my attackers, I have no doubt that they were influenced by the words of hate spewed by Israeli government ministers aimed at human rights activists like myself, as well as peace activists. (There is a difference).

Pinkhas’ act takes place adjacent to the Tent of Meeting, the desert predecessor of the Temple Mount.

Last night I heard a commentator saying that Pinkhas’s act was a holy and pure act, but not one to be emulated. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. Actions speak louder than words, not to mention the fact that we have many many people in this world who believe they have heard the word of God. I, too, believe that my human rights activities are commanded by God. So, who am I to judge or know who has heard God? But, I see the results. Some have engaged in acts of love, healing and justice because they feel commanded. Others have engaged in acts of death, hatred and destruction.

I am disturbed by where my own thoughts seem to be leading me. Was there something truly different in the act of Pinkhas, distinguishing it from all today’s acts of vigilantism? Or , am I implying that God was mistaken in issuing the command in our Torah portion? Arguably God and Moses commanded acts to be carried out through due process, but it is clear how Pinkhas must have felt thoroughly justified in what he did.

In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch first gives an explanation justifying Pinkhas according the plain meaning of the text. He argues that, although what Pinkhas does seems the opposite of peace, one can’t upset the harmony between God and humanity, and true peace, in the name of peace.

He then adds an “however.” The “vav” (Hebrew version of “v,” or in this case the letter “o”) in “Shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace is a broken vav the way it is written in the Torah. Without the vav, the word becomes “shalem,” (whole). This means that in a place where an act like Pinkhas’ is necessary, peace has been broken. Peace must include it’s shared root of wholeness. This leads to a passage in the Talmud teaching that a person who has a flaw cannot be a priest. The fact that one can read “shalom” (peace) as “shalem” (whole), teaches that one cannot be a priest if one has flaws.(Kiddushin 66b)

However, there is another way to read this idea of the broken vav. Maybe God is saying, “Pinkhas misunderstood me. Yes, I was enraged , and wanted the idolatry stopped. But, not in the way he did so. HIs was a broken act. It was neither whole, nor a true act of peace. As I will teach Pinkhas’ reincarnation, Elijah the Prophet, I am not to be found in violence or in raging fire or rock shattering winds of earthquakes, but in the Still Small Voice. Seeing that my words were so misunderstood, I turned back my wrath. And, so that Pinkhas can be a priest, I will give him the peace and the wholeness he now lacks.” He and his descendents will be able to be priests, recognizing that he acted because he was jealous for me. Despite his act, I will grant him the wholeness and peace that will make him able to fulfill his priestly functions, and make atonement for the Israelites.

This is still a problematic reading theologically, certainly if we believe that God’s perfection means “no regrets.” Perhaps I am blind and unwilling to accept the plain meaning of the text. However, Torah and the midrash are filled with incidents where God has regrets, and sometimes even learns from human beings.

And, if the Master of the Universe can do so, than perhaps our leaders can also learn how their words, whether or not so intended, can lead to acts that are the very opposite of peace and wholeness. Perhaps they too can take action to repair the broken vav.

If it is unacceptable to allow the broken vav to teach us that God regretted words that were misunderstood or was capable of being misunderstood, and totally abandoning the plain meaning of the text, let the broken vav at leach remind us that our leaders and opinions do not have God’s wholeness. Our potential vigilantes do not have the wholeness our tradition attributes to Pinkhas. The broken vav should teach us that our leaders must avoid all words that can be interpreted as an encouragement of vigilantism. We too must find God in the Still Small Voice.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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