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This week's portion: turning violence into peace

Parashat Pinchas can be difficult for contemporary liberal Jews to read. The story begins at the end of last week's portion, in which we read about a man named Pinchas who speared a pair of lovers at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. The two were apparently part of an epidemic of Israelites consorting with outsiders (and making illicit sacrifices to other gods), and as a result of Pinchas' actions a plague God had brought upon the Israelites comes to an end.

That's the prologue. At the start of this week's portion, God gives Pinchas a brit shalom, a "pact of friendship" or covenant of peace, for him and his descendants for all time.

Arguably the central question of the parasha is, was the brit a reward for acting righteously, or a corrective intended to steer Pinchas toward a more righteous path? And what are the implications of each answer, in terms of how we understand violence, peace, and God's will for humanity?

The traditional commentators see the covenant as a reward. In their view, the spearing was absolutely the right call. But other readings are possible -- and maybe helpful to others like me who find the portion's unbridled violence difficult to bear.

That's where my commentary on this portion begins; the rest explores a teaching of the Ishbitzer Rebbe as a path into understanding parashat Pinchas anew. Find it here: Turning violence into peace.

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