Last week’s portion, Balak, ends on a dark cliffhanger. If the narrative were a TV show, the end of last week’s episode would be particularly climactic and gruesome. Pinchas, a priestly descendent of Aaron, commits an act of double homicide in an attempt to curb idolatry brought on by cohabitation between Israelites and Midianites. His act of zealotry ends a divine plague, which killed 24,000 Israelites. Fade to black.
This week, we find Pinchas seemingly blessed for his act of violence:
God spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him my brit shalom.’” (Numbers 25:10-12)
One might choose to read Pinchas’s act in its context, recognizing the jealous nature of God when it comes to disobedience, especially when idolatry is involved. One could even say Pinchas was acting justly for his time, responding to an immediate need of his tribe by setting a strong and forceful standard through a display of violence.
Despite these apologetic readings, it seems out of place for God to cosign a brit shalom — translated as “covenant of peace” — with Pinchas, who essentially conducts an act of war and aggression. Why would God choose this kind of covenant at this moment? What is accomplished by invoking peace in light of such violence? The paradox is striking.
When I spent a year studying in the Old City of Jerusalem after high school, my yeshiva participated in a number of marches. Many of the marches were harmless displays of pre-Shabbat revelry, but some took on a more provocative tone. During holidays, we would occasionally march through the Muslim quarter of the city, where some students would shout and bang on storefronts. One holiday, we marched through Silwan, a Palestinian village adjacent to the Old City, guarded by scores of IDF soldiers as Palestinians looked on from a distance.
As an 18-year-old yeshiva student, I didn’t fully understand what we were doing there. All I knew was that I felt uncomfortable and ashamed by what seemed like an unnecessary and provocative display of power. To this day, I feel deeply impacted by my participation in those marches.
Watching the news these past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of those days in Jerusalem. This year’s postponed Jerusalem Day Flag March, which consistently provokes tension and violence in and around the Old City, was defiantly rescheduled and attended by thousands of participants just over two weeks ago, including by members of the Knesset. In many of the photos, I observed 18-year-old yeshiva students, who look just like I did, in front of a backdrop of Israeli flags and flags representing Lehava, a far-right party. In video clips, I hear some chanting “Death to Arabs.” I feel the painful reminder of my past reignited.
In attempting to understand why God grants Pinchas a covenant of peace after he commits acts of violence, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the 19th-century Polish/Lithuanian rabbi known by his acronym Netziv, provides a powerful interpretation:
inchas was promised he would not become an agitated and angry person, for the nature of the act he did — killing a person with his hands — leaves a strong impression.” (Haamek Davar on Numbers 25:12)
The Netziv is pointing to the notion of moral injury, that one may be deeply and emotionally impacted especially by acts that have harmed others. Pinchas, reflecting on his own destructive past, would likely face a plethora of feelings: guilt, shame, anger, hopelessness. Many veterans experience severe PTSD due to the lingering effects of moral injury, as they consciously and subconsciously recognize the harm and damage they may have committed during their service.
I felt uncomfortable and ashamed by what seemed like an unnecessary and provocative display of power.
In addition to the immense and ongoing pain experienced by victims of violence, it is evident that acts of harm leave a wide trail of suffering behind them. According to the Netziv, the brit is meant as a healing salve. God knows the ways committing acts of violence may leave a permanent scar on those who commit them. Perhaps God is speaking from experience.
When I see the violence of these past few weeks, I cannot help but reflect on the harm I may have caused. Whom have I harmed, whether by marching or staying silent? What acts of violence have I committed, whether actively or passively? In reckoning with our own complicity in causing harm, I hope we can all draw on Pinchas’s brit shalom, a covenant of peace in our souls, so that we may do no more harm and pursue peace and justice instead.
Rabbi Aaron Portman is a recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in NYC, and has worked as a multifaith educator, prison chaplain, youth director and university professor. Prior to rabbinical school, he studied at Yeshiva University and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, after which he worked at Footsteps, an organization that provides economic and social support to formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This commentary was originally published by T’ruah as part of its (M)oral Torah series. Sign up here to receive (M)oral Torah in your inbox each week.
Friday, July 2, 2021
Tammuz 22, 5781
Light candles at 8:13 pm
Torah Reading: Pinchas: Numbers 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
Shabbat ends 9:21 pm.