The Violent Passion Of Pinchas

The Violent Passion Of Pinchas

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 8:10 p.m.
Torah: Num. 25:10-30:1
Haftorah: I Kings 18:46-19:21
Havdalah: 9:18 p.m.

The Torah portion Pinchas begins with a reward. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, has just put a spear through a cohabiting Israelite man and Midianite woman who were flaunting their liaison. It was a time when Moses was trying to eradicate idol worship in the Israelite camp. Midianite women had been sent to the camp as a stratagem to morally defeat Israel, and the ploy was working well. God seems to reward Pinchas, bestowing upon him a Covenant of Peace.

The Torah says: “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back my wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged my vengeance among them so I did not consume the Children of Israel in my vengeance. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give him my Covenant of Peace; and it shall be for him and his offspring after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood; because he took vengeance for his God, and he atoned for the Children of Israel’” [Numbers 25:11-13].

Was God’s Covenant of Peace truly a reward? The rabbis are divided on this question, showing their discomfort with Pinchas’ action and mirroring our own unease. Shouldn’t Pinchas have consulted Moses? Should Pinchas have taken it upon himself to act as judge and also carry out the sentence? The Talmud supports the view that he was wrong in his action. Rabbis Hissda, Johanan, and Bar Hana agree: “If the zealot seeks counsel [whether to punish the transgressors himself], we do not instruct him to do so. [Sanhedrin 82a]. In the Torah, the name of Pinchas in verse 11 is written with a small yud, which can represent the diminishing of God’s name through violence. Also, in verse 12, in the word shalom (peace), the vav, also found in God’s name, is written with a broken stem, showing an uneasiness with rewarding Pinchas and expressing an incomplete peace.

Like the daughters of Lot who sought to repopulate the world, doing something prohibited out of a good intention [Genesis 19:31-36], Pinchas commits an act of great violence out of his zeal for God’s law, showing his worthy intention. The Zohar comments: “Now it is a rule that a priest who kills a human being becomes disqualified for the priesthood, and therefore by rights Pinchas should have been disqualified. But because he was jealous for the Holy One, blessed be God, the priesthood was assigned to him and to his descendants in perpetuity” [Zohar III, 214a].

God’s reward allows Pinchas to enter the priesthood — immediately — so that he can channel his energies into sacrificing animals, not killing human beings. Henceforth he will function in the highly regulated and ritualized ceremonies of the priesthood, where he will be under the supervision of his father, Elazar, the Kohen Gadol, and take his place in that priestly brotherhood of ego-negation before God.

What is it that makes us so uncomfortable with Pinchas’ action? Perhaps it is that he added anger to his zeal. A story is told about the Baal Shem Tov when he held the job of shochet, the ritual slaughterer. Long after he had gone on to be a great teacher, an old man in the town used to pass the Baal Shem Tov’s old shochet’s shop and shake his head. The current shochet came out one day and confronted the old man. The shochet asked the old man what he objected to. Was his knife too dull? Did he cause the animals any undue pain? The old man told him that the Baal Shem Tov used to whet the knife with his tears. That is the way we should carry out justice or any difficult action: with love, compassion, and great regret; with a deep reluctance to cause any violence or shed any blood.

It is our intention that is so important. May we keep our love flowing to each other, even when life demands, like Pinchas, that we stand up for what is right. And may we be like the Eternal Holy One, tempering our justice with mercy.

Jill Hausman is the rabbi and cantor of the historic Actors’ Temple in Manhattan.

read more: