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Dvar Torah on Parshat Pinchas

Parashat Hashavua Pinchas 2014 / 5774 - War, and Peace

10.07.2014 by

The Parsha of Pinchas begins immediately after Pinchas, at the end of last week's parsha, killed Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, and Kosbi, a Midianite princess, who were publicly having sex. This was part of the Moabite/Midianite plan to seduce the Israelites to mate with their women, worship their idols, abandon Judaism, and become Midianites.  In this week's parsha, Pinchas is rewarded by God for his act of zealotry - one which the halacha condones, and which God desired - with בריתי שלום;  "my covenant of peace".

The commentators discuss what this covenant is. The Ibn Ezra explains that Pinchas's act could easily and naturally have led Zimri's powerful family, who were, after all, heads of a tribe, to take revenge for his killing their kinsman; the covenant of peace is a guarantee of God's protection from them. The Chizkuni adds that Pinchas also needed God's protection - which is what a covenant is all about - from the Midianite family of Kosbi, who would also be tempted to avenge the death of their sister.

According to this understanding, Pinchas, though he did the right thing in killing Zimri and Kosbi, did take a risk, and did create a problem. Actions have consequences, and violent actions, even when done for a good cause, have violent consequences; they  lead to more violence. Revenge seems to be a natural response, and it is from this natural response that Pinchas needs God's covenantal protection. After the correct and neccesary act of putting Zimri and Kosbi to death, God wants, and guarantees, an end to the killing; he wants Shalom. This is also expressed in the verse immediately preceding the one about the covenant (Numbers, 25;11), in which God expains that Pinchas killing the two criminals prevented even more, and worse, violence, coming from God, which would have been neccessary had the Jews continued to sin with the Midianites. Pinchas, by killing the two and stopping the rot,  actually saved countless lives from God's vengeful and deadly anger. Although justice was called for here, and Pinchas responded to that call, peace, the saving of lives, an end to the killing, seems to be the greater, ultimate value, and Pinchas's real accomplishment. 

Here in Israel, we are living through the truth of the lesson that violence naturally leads to more violence. We seem to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of deadly attacks, self-defense, retribution, revenge, and again back to more violence. Although the events of the past 60-odd years, and well beyond,  indicate that we certainly are benefitting from God's covenant, we are also not immune to the horrible effects of this cycle of death and destruction.

I recently read two books about two very different places and periods: Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore, and The Island at the Center of the World, about Dutch New Amsterdam (Manhattan), by Russel Shorto. I read Jerusalem first, and was sickened by the seemingly endless list of mostly Arab and Muslim violence (with some pagan, Jewish (Herod, etc.), and Christian thrown in, for good measure), greed, and cruelty. The level of imperial selfishness, arrogance, and lack of concern for human life and liberty, was appalling. Living in Israel, I found it sobering to realise that we are caught in a cycle of conquest and killing that has been going on for millenia, with no neccessary connection to the Jewish presence in the middle east. 

If I was tempted by Jerusalem to see the Muslims as being especially blood-thirsty and mendacious, Shorto's book, which focuses on European imperialism in the 17th century as it relates to the settlement of the New World, quickly educated me.  The lust for war, the greed, the chauvinism, and the disregard for human life, among the Spanish, Dutch and British are as grotesque and disgusting, if perhaps a bit less exotic in their specifics  to my Western eyes, as anything the Muslims did.

Which brings me to our current situation here in the wild middle east. I am, of course, biased. But I also have eyes to see and ears to hear, and I know that the desire for peace, for an end to the violence, expressed by God's covenant with Pinchas immediately after his neccessary act of killng, is a Jewish legacy, a Jewish value. It is who we are. Not all of us, and not always, as we do not always live up to our values, but it is certainly what we aspire to. The care Israel is now taking to minimize the death toll in this very neccessary counter-attack on Gaza, the lack, for the most part, of imperialist designs and jingoistic posturing, and the stress on the need to simply protect ourselves, and others, from an enemy which really does seem to worship death and destruction, all indicate how far we are from the kind of thinking and behavior which has been the bloody leitmotif of  world history since we began recording it.

Judaism's ambivalence towards those who have been the most guilty of the greedy and bloodthirsty behavior which has typified world history - kings -  is based directly on the value of peace. We know what kings are, and what they do, and, therefore,  we much prefer to avoid them. That is why Maimonides calls his section on the laws governing monarchs and their behavior "The Laws of Kings and Their Wars" ; that is what they do: make war, kill, and conquer, which is why Judaism prefers to not have a king, and sees monarchy as a second-best method of governance, behind the preferred leadership model of priests, prophets, and rabbis.

What remains for us to do, therefore, is to live up to our historical legacy, and our values. To continue to understand that violence is at times neccessary, but is never a value, never a way of life, never to be celebrated. The crowning glory of Pinchas's act is that he saved lives, and that, with God's help, he did not, with his bloody act, start a further cycle of death, but, rather, ended one. Our job, as always, is to imitate God, and find ways to prevent that awful cycle from ensnaring us in its unthinking and unforgiving grip, and somehow arrive at a covenant of peace.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Actions have consequences, and violent actions, even when done for a good cause, have violent consequences; they lead to more violence. Rabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Pinchas


In Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas is rewarded for his actions at the end of last week's parsha, Balak, in which he killed the Israelite who was publicly intimate with a Midianite woman. We then have a census of all the Israelites, which precedes the laws of how to divide the land of Israel among the tribes. At this stage, the five daughters of Zelaphchad approach Moshe and request the right to inherit their late father's portion of the land, which God grants them. Moshe, whose death is fast approaching, is told to choose Yehoshua as his successor, to lead the nation into Israel. The parsha ends with the laws of the daily and holiday sacrifices in the Temple.

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