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Those who abjure violence can do so only because others are committing violence on their behalf.
– George Orwell
This week’s Torah portion opens with God praising Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, for an extrajudicial killing. At the end of last week’s reading, Moses is instructed to punish the Israelites who worshiped the Midianite god, and God brings a plague upon the people. In the midst of this, it is Pinchas’ spontaneous killing of an Israelite man and his Midianite consort that brings God’s punishment to an end. This earns God’s praise and an eternal reward: henceforth all High Priests will be Pinchas’ direct male-line descendants.
Set in the aftermath of a series of massive failures of leadership, the narrative of Pinchas hints that the Torah may condone revolutionary violence. That some occasions call for an abrupt overturning of the social order. Rather than bring the offenders before Moses for judgment, Pinchas is rewarded for an impetuous violent act – murdering two people. This is jarring – all the more so after Moses, who strikes a rock in frustration, is denied entry into the Promised Land.
Pinehas’ act is also of a piece with the political contest that has ruled for several Torah portions. Korach, the Levite, banded together with the descendants of Reuben to challenge Moses and Aaron for the leadership. Now Pinchas kills Zimri, princely leader of the tribe of Simon, and his consort Cozbi, daughter of a Midianite chieftain. What is the context?
Moses rises to leadership of the nation after marrying the daughter of Jethro, the high priest of Midian. Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob, loses the leadership of the family and of the people and is superseded by the tribe of Levi, Jacob’s third-born son. By rule of primogeniture, the leadership should have devolved upon Simon, the second-born. The political machinations emerge: in the aftermath of the failure of Korach and his confederates to wrest power from Moses, the tribe of Simon asserts its claim. Pinchas – a Levite from the line of Aaron – publicly crushes the ember of rebellion. His violent act asserts definitively both the primacy of Aaron and Moses, while sending a clear message to others who might challenge them for the leadership.
Pinchas is held up as the model of the zealot – though the rabbis’ discomfort is greater than their veneration. Moses also displayed zealotry; why is he not the model of the one who is willing to lay it all on the line? To be clear: it is not Pinchas’ willingness to commit violence, but his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of God’s cause – which still begs the question of why zealotry is ascribed to him, and not to Moses. Pinchas cannot know what consequences he might suffer for his action; indeed, he should expect to be put to death himself. Yet, in the episode of the Golden Calf, Moses shattered the Tablets of the Law in no less an act of zealotry. Moses decided that God’s Word cannot be given over to a people who have rejected God. At the moment Moses casts the stone tablets to the ground, he cannot know that God will bring him back up Mount Sinai and give him a second set of tablets. Moses commands his fellow Levites to kill the Israelites – likewise unbidden by God – and three thousand die. Moses has committed two irretrievable acts – destruction of the Divine Word, and mass murder – both of which will later be deemed capital crimes.
Why is Pinchas singled out among the sons of Aaron to merit the High Priesthood? Aaron is the man of peace, always seeking to maintain harmony among his fellow Israelites. Aaron, who would not raise his voice, much less his hand, in anger. Perhaps it is not gentleness per se that qualifies Aaron for the priesthood, but rather a wholeness: Aaron is wholly a man of peace – to the extent that he falls silent after seeing his sons devoured by flames from the altar. The only words that are appropriate to such a tragedy would be words of rebuke, words of anguish, and words of anger. Rather than give rise to all this, Aaron maintains his peace in the only way possible: silence.
Pinchas comes on the scene armed with a spear. His first act is to kill two people in plain sight. He too is true to his own inner nature. Where Aaron was all peaceablness in the service of God, Pinchas is all initiative. Aaron acquiesced to lose his sons in the service of God. Pinchas signals his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of God, and for the integrity of his nation. Aaron is all about self-control in the service of God, while Pinchas is all about loss of control.
Uniquely in the Torah’s narrative, Pinchas embodies in one man the spiritual zeal and unerring focus of the priesthood, together with the swift and brutal action of the enforcer. The event which brings him to our attention is troubling; the Torah is telling us that leadership is a messy business. Pinchas is not elevated because he was right to kill the pair – though his action stopped the plague. It is not that he was overcome by jealousy for God’s honor to the exclusion of all human considerations – though this was his mindset, both as explicit in the text and as understood by the commentaries. It was rather that he performed one act for which he stood ready to sacrifice his own life, and this is the only aspect of the incident which might redeem him. As God will tell Moses, in designating Joshua as his successor, leadership devolves naturally upon those who take it on, even if they are unready.
The lesson of Pinchas is often misconstrued. The lesson is not to kill people who disagree with us or who do things of which we disapprove. It is not that wrongdoers must be put to death. Rather, like Pinchas, we must be willing to lay ourselves on the line for what is right. Very little that we do in life will have the weight of Pinchas’ deed, but that does not mean we should not approach every situation, every action, every moment, with full and utter commitment.
We read a few weeks ago that Moses was the pinnacle of humility. This week, when God tells Moses of his own impending death (28:12–23), his reaction (vv. 15–17) reinforces the notion. Moses doesn’t plead for his life. He doesn’t say, I don’t want to die; nor, I don’t deserve to die. Rather, he asks, How will the people go on? They will be like sheep without a shepherd! Before You take me out of the picture, says Moses, please make sure there is a strong successor, someone who can lead them as I have. In his own quiet way – privately, face-to-face with God and out of the public eye – Moses is every bit as fearless as Pinchas. His greatness lies in his willingness to take himself out of the picture, harking back to the great lesson first learned by Joseph in Egypt: that the world’s narrative is not about us, but that we live to serve the world into which we are born. How much more clearly can the humility of Moses be expressed than in his willingness to hand over the leadership now, on the verge of completing his God-given task? To step down just at the moment when he stands on the threshold of the Promised Land?
There is much to contemplate in this portion, not the least of which is the notion that true greatness comes from a combination of commitment to one’s goals, seeing one’s responsibilities clearly, and of recognizing that it is the task itself which is all-important, and not the one who does it. Both Pinchas and Moses are willing to sacrifice themselves in the service of the task before them.
It is easy to be a zealot when God addresses us, when Moses speaks to us. When we have stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and seen the lightning, heard the thunder, and listened to God’s own voice. Alas, such clarity is not given to us. How difficult it is to sustain the immediacy and the urgency of our task in the modern world! We must all become a little bit like Pinchas, willing to risk ourselves for the sake of what is truly important. Moses – who argues with God, not for Moses’ own sake, but for the sake of the nation that God has given into his care. For the sake of God’s own plan. Pinchas, who was willing to die to restore the integrity of God’s people. Our challenges may not ever be on as great a scale, yet we are faced constantly with situations that demand clarity of moral vision, and a swift and equally clear response. God’s covenant of peace must be constantly renewed in the world, and it is renewed by those who take action for what is right, not thinking about the consequences to themselves.
“Therefore,” says God. “I say, behold, I give him My covenant of peace.” Peace, says God, not vigilantism. Perhaps this is not a reward. Maybe it is the only corrective God can offer. The Torah acknowledges that there are times when leaders act harshly. And, no less, the Torah recognizes that we will not always be able to curb our own worst impulses – we have only to glance back and see Moses strike the rock. Perhaps God is saying that Pinchas’ act, though dreadful – perhaps unforgivable – did put a stop to a much larger problem. It was perhaps not the only way, but it was a way nonetheless. When human society starts to spin out of control, people are moved to extreme measures. Who, then, requires God’s Covenant of Peace more than that society whose leadership bases its authority on murder?
It is easy to perform the zealous act when God addresses us. When we have stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and seen the lightning, heard the thunder, and listened to God’s own voice. Alas, such clarity is not given to us. How difficult it is to sustain the immediacy and the urgency of our task in the modern world! We must all become a little bit like Pinchas, willing to risk ourselves for the sake of what is truly important. Like Moses – who argues with God, not for Moses’ own sake, but for the sake of the nation that God has given into his care. For the sake of God’s own plan. Like Pinchas, who in desperation was willing to die to restore the integrity of God’s people. Our challenges may not ever be on as great a scale, yet we are faced constantly with situations that demand clarity of vision, and a swift and equally clear response. God’s covenant of peace must be constantly renewed in the world, and it is renewed by those who take action for what is right, not thinking about the consequences to themselves.
Yours for a better world.