Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Rewarded Punishment

Parshat Pichas
Bamidbar 25:10 - 30:1
24 Tammuz 5772 / July 13 – 14, 2012

Rewarded Punishment
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

This is a D’var Torah about first impressions. Whenever I meet anyone tall, I immediately think that I cannot have any possible relationship with this person. It is like an automatic trigger in my head – tall person and little me = do not mix. Well, I have been proven wrong many times and have some amazing relationships with people who tower over me. Many of these people, I have actually met through Moishe House ;-) .

This week’s parsha is like a tall person for me. It begins with Pinchas (Aaron’s grandson) who, after killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman in the midst of coitus, is rewarded by God with the eternal gift of priesthood.  The background is that the Israelites meet the Midianites on the way to Israel and the Midianite women lure the Israelite men into a bit of a sex party. Pinchas’ bloody actions, as you might guess, breaks up the fun. The fact that violence is commended and rewarded so highly does not compute in my brain and my reaction is, NOPE – I don’t get it.

I would like to pause from my negative first impression of this story and see if I am missing something that I can relate to.

The text states, in last week’s portion, that as the couple was publically doing the nasty, there was a plague occurring where other Israelites were dropping like flies. This plague claimed 24,000 lives and after Pinchas’ act of zealotry, people stopped dying. This leads me to believe that there was more at stake here than inter-religious baby making. The Israelites were under a spiritual and/or cultural attack. This was no meeting of two peaceful cultures for the sake of expanding wisdom. The Israelites were vulnerable and ungrounded, and if the charge led by this Israelite fornicator would have succeeded, our history might have ended there. Pinchas killed two and saved thousands, and generations to come.

This ultimately does not satisfy me. I do not love Pinchas. Aaron’s lineage is about being a Rodef Shalom (a pursuer of peace) using peaceful means. His grandson seems to bring peace, though falls short in employing peaceful means – so there is a bit of a stain on his reward. The text suggests that God’s feelings towards what happened was not super positive either. First, in the parsha, when Pinchas is first mentioned, his name is spelled with a smaller-than-usual yud ( (י,this might denote a limiting of Divine favor, as yud is a letter in God’s holy name. 

In addition, in the word for Pinchas’ blessing, which the Torah says is a Brit Shalom - ברית שלום -   a covenant of peace – the letter vav (ו )in the word Shalom is broken in the middle. This letter is also a letter in God’s name. To me this says that this covenant of peace has something broken within it.

In the end, my first impression of this story has been somewhat complicated. Sometimes drastic actions are needed in order to save lives – needing to choose the death of a few to save many. Most of us will never make such a decision, but people in positions of national/global leadership do have to make such hard decisions daily. I do feel a little bit better knowing that God does not feel completely whole with the way things turned out. And perhaps – Pinchas is gifted the priesthood in order to tame his passions within the rigid system of priestly life.   


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