The Importance of Constructive Action

Pinehas By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 11, 2014 / 5774 | Philosophy

Recall the troubling and cryptic episode at the conclusion of last week’s parashah: the Israelites encamp at Shittim; they are seduced by Moabite women and attach themselves to an idolatrous cult of Ba‘al Pe‘or. As retribution for this act, God commands Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel” (Num. 25:4). Precisely at the moment of God’s decree, Pinehas, the grandson of Aaron, witnesses a brazen act between an Israelite man and Midianite woman. Pinehas, filled with rage and the desire for retribution, takes justice into his own hands, stabbing the Israelite and his Midianite partner. As a result of Pinehas’s actions, the plague unleashed against the wayward Israelites is checked, and this week’s parashah reports that Pinhas is given the divine gift of a brit shalom (covenant of peace; Num. 25:12). How may we make sense of this episode of vigilante justice and zealotry?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sheds some light on the narrative:

Pinhas asserted My Rights and made them respected among the people, and thereby saved the whole nation from destruction into which they would irrevocably have fallen had I been forced to assert My Rights Myself. If a challenge to God finds no champion among a circle of human beings and the consciousness of the Rights which God has on them has disappeared from this circle, then they have lost God, and thereby their own future existence. And this must be the case especially in the Jewish circle of human beings, Israel, whose whole human historical existence rests on the word “li,” “[they belong] to me,” with which God has called Israel “His possession” and thereby dedicated every member of it to be “His” in every phase of its existence, and for all eternity makes this Right of Possession valid. Israel is either “God’s” or it ceases to exist. One such single man, Pinhas, and one such single manly deed become the savior of the entire nation. (Commentary on Numbers, 432)

Hirsch does well in highlighting the depth of Pinehas’s loyalty to and sympathy for God helping us grasp the motivation for such a severe act. Our commentator is also to be praised for underscoring the extent to which there must be a partnership between God and humans; it is not enough for humans to sense the divine emotion, but they must also act in constructive ways. There must be a true striving to become a divine people. Given these reflections, the modern reader succeeds in making some sense of Pinehas’s fundamentalism. But still, the overwhelming tension of this narrative remains. An act of unbridled religious fundamentalism not only carries the day, but seems to be rewarded. Then again, perhaps the unique reward serves as a remedy: a “covenant of peace” must temper Pinehas’s zealousness, and “an everlasting priesthood” devoted to the disciplined service of God must be the channel through which Pinehas and his descendants distill their energies. Parashat Pinehas forces us to pause and reflect on the role of religious passion and its destructive as well as constructive consequences.

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