Between Zealotry and Peace

Pinehas By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 22, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

This week, we read the first of three “haftarot of rebuke” which precede Tisha B’av. Even though this Haftorah is ordinarily associated with Mattot, Mattot is read as the first half of a double–portion this year. We read this haftorah a week “early” to be sure we don’t miss it.

One of the most paradoxical and troubling narratives in Tanakh occurs at the seam of Parashat Balak and Parashat Pinhas. Having been seduced by Moabite women in Shittim, the Israelites turn to the worship of the Moabite god, Baal Peor. God commands Moses to slay all of the Israelite leaders who led the people astray; Moses then orders his deputies to kill all those who “attached themselves” to Baal Peor. At that moment, an Israelite man and Moabite woman profanely flaunt their relationship before Moses and the whole Israelite community. Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear, follows them into their chamber, and kills them both in the middle of their sexual act.

As a reward for Pinhas’ deed, God puts an end to the plague by which he had punished the Israelites for their behavior and even more shockingly, Pinhas is granted a “covenant of peace” for his act. God declares: “Pinhas… has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me. Say therefore, ‘I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites” (Numbers 25:13). What makes Pinhas’ zealous and violent behavior deserving of a “covenant of peace”?

Another episode of zealotry some forty years earlier sheds light on this week’s parasha. In Exodus 2:11–12, we read of Moses’ maturation and subsequent identification with the oppressed Israelites. Moses goes out to his fellow Israelites. The text continues, “he saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” Commenting on the phrase, “he saw their burdens,” Rashi, the great medieval exegete writes, “he turned his eyes and heart to their afflictions.” It was not that Moses merely saw the burden of the Israelite people; his act of seeing was far deeper. Sight, for Moses, involved both his eyes and his heart. To see, for Moses, was to feel the pain of the other. It was empathy, absolute identification with the other that triggered Moses’ zealotry. To be silent is to be complacent. To be silent is to acquiesce in the face of injustice. This does not excuse the taking of another’s life. Nevertheless, it is this act and Moses’ keen sense of justice and empathy that make him worthy of becoming the shepherd of the Israelites.

Such empathy plays a critical role in the Pinhas narrative as well. The Israelites broke faith with God. By engaging in sexual relations with the Moabites and attaching themselves to Baal Peor, they abandoned the sacred covenant of loyalty and monotheism between God and themselves. When the Ten Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites were told that God is a jealous God, who expects absolute, categorical commitment. However, the Israelites turned to the Golden Calf, sparking the rage and jealousy of God; and now, the Israelites turn to Baal Peor. To Pinhas’ credit, he senses God’s pain. It is this act of identification with God that tempers God’s jealousy. To be silent in the face of the outrageous and profane behavior of the Israelites would have been to acquiesce to their acts. Pinhas is empathetic. He places himself in the shoes of the Other, in this case God, and acts on God’s behalf.

Although Professor Ze’ev Falk z”l is on the mark in writing that “the connection between zealotry and peace is a paradox” (Falk, To the Very End, 364), in light of the model of Moses and the role of empathy, it is not difficult to understand how peace may follow from zealotry. The zealotry of both Moses and Pinhas is a product of extreme empathy. For Moses, empathy means placing one’s self in the role of one’s fellow human being and feeling the physical and emotional pain experienced by that individual under the whip of the oppressor. The Israelites see Moses’ empathy and begin relating to him as one of their own––not as an Egyptian vizier. For Pinhas, empathy is more abstract and difficult. Pinhas empathizes with God. Pinhas understands the sanctity of covenant and is zealously willing to defend that sanctity. In light of the continued disloyalties of the Israelites, Pinhas represents steadfast loyalty to God’s covenant. His empathy puts an end to Israelite betrayal. God sees Pinhas’ empathy which in turn puts an end to the plague and leads to God’s forgiveness. Empathy is a gateway to forgiveness and to peace.

The parasha then becomes all the more relevant in light of the present negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians at Camp David. My hope is that empathy will drive these partners toward a real peace. Only by acknowledging the other’s perspective and version of their own historical experience can they ever hope to move forward. May we all declare resoundingly as the opening of Midrash Rabbah of this week’s parasha, “Great is peace, the gift made to Pinhas! For the world could not be maintained except by peace, and the Torah is wholly peace; as it says, The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace (Proverbs 3:17).”

Unlike Moses and Pinhas, our mandate must eschew violence. But let the empathetic zealousness of Moses and Pinhas be our guide as we look toward creating a brighter future.

With Wishes for a Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz