PLEASE NOTE: Until August, the Torah reading in the Land of Israel will be different than the Torah reading outside of the Land of Israel. This Shabbat we in Israel read Pinchas while abroad Balak which was read last week in Israel, is read. You can find last week’s Dvar Torah on Balak here.
Does the Torah truly praise Pinchas when he takes God’s law into his own hands, murdering those deemed sinners? In her commentary to Parashat Pinchas, Tamar Avraham explores how Jewish tradition approaches zealots who seek to do the work of God, allowing peace to the fall by the wayside.
By illustrators of the 1728 Figures de la Bible, Gerard Hoet (1648-1733) and others, published by P. de Hondt in The Hague in 1728
By Tamar Avraham
Parashat Pinchas begins with God’s stand on what happens at the end of Parashat Balak: Pinchas’ deed — his deadly stabbing of an Israelite and his Midianite partner. God’s thoughts on the issue are as follows:
“Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy.” “12 Therefore say , Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.” Numbers 25:11-13.
Religious zealotry for one God who has no tolerance for other gods or the worshiping of other gods is a phenomenon which is increasing and spreading in contemporary times. The zealots of the “Islamic state” vicously murder in cold blood anyone who in their eyes is an infidel; the practitioners of other religions are considered idol worshipers, along with Muslims who they believe swayed away from the “right path.” On a much smaller scale, but with just as strong a belief in the justness of their cause, Jewish zealots act against whomever, in their eyes, worships idols or is a “renegade” Jew. One can remember, for instance, the torching of the Tabgha Church and the murder of Shira Banki in the last gay pride. It is easy for these Jews to see themselves as behaving zealously to God the way Pinchas did.
Shira Banki, murdered last year by a Jewish extremist during the Jerusalem Pride parade
Nonetheless, when you read the biblical text itself and review the normative commentary or interpretations, it is clear that Pinchas’ zeal is questioned and often challenged.
On first appearance it seems God appreciates Pinchas: He made himself into the “enforcing arm” of the Lord, imposed an “appropriate” punishment on the person who strayed from the Torah, and also blocked God’s wrath, preventing a much larger punishment from being meted out to Israel. Knowing this, when you deepen the scope of analysis and examine each word, two statements are surprising: First of all, Pinchas and his descendants are promised “A covenant of everlasting priesthood.” Wasn’t this already promised to Aharon and his lineage — which includes Pinchas? Is another additional covenant necessary beyond Pinchas’ priesthood because his deed may have included something that denied his priesthood? And moreover: The covenant that God made with Pinchas is a “covenant of peace.” It is difficult to think of anything more opposed to religious zealotry than “peace.” If Pinchas needed a covenenat of peace, maybe it meant that there was a need for a “tikkun” to restrain such actions in the future?
Actually, Hazzekuni (13th century French rabbi) writes in his interpretation of the Torah that Pinchas is scared after the murder that he will lose the priesthood, as is written in Brachot 32,2:
“Rabbi Johanan said: A priest who has committed manslaughter should not lift up his hands [to say the Priestly Benediction], since it says [in this context], ‘Your hands are full of blood’ (Isaiah 1: 15)”.
Hazzekuni continues and says that “because the murder was in the name of God,” God promised Pinchas the continuation of his priesthood, but nonetheless the idea that a closeness to God, as was allowed to priests in the Holy Temple, still should not be accompanied by bloody hands. This thought also comes in to play in the prohibition on David to build the Temple (Divrei Hayamim A:32.8) and in the explanation of the prohibition to not wield a sword on the altar (Exodus 20, 21). Therefore we understand that the place of weapons is to be limited, not one that is supposed to last long (See Rashi’s parashanut).
Midrash Bamidbar Raba opens up Parashat Pinchas to the meaning of a covenant of peace:
“Great is the peace granted to Pinchas because the world acts only within peace and the Torah is all peace, as it was written ‘Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peaceful”(Mashli 3, 17)
The Sh’ma prayer is finished with peace covering the people of Israel, prayer is finished with peace, and in the priest’s prayer you end with peace. Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalfta says there is no tool that holds a blessing such as peace, as it was stated “God gave courage to his people and blessed his people with peace” (Psalms 29:11, Parasha 21’1). Peace is presented here as a key value, as the meaning of the Torah and the basis for the existence of the world. Any evidence to the importance of peace by the Midrash sounds like a command to Pinchas to learn what priesthood and God’s work is really about: Not to take the law into your own hands and kill in the name of the Lord, but rather to be tolerant even towards those you believe stray from the Torah, leaving the jealousy to God.
Tamar Avraham is a long-time supporter of RHR who works as a tour guide specializing in holy places in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. She was an active participant in RHR’s recent Torah-learning with Dr. Shaiya Rothberg
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