Postcard from Jerusalem at BAP blog
Moments of connection

This week's portion: gut feeling


Was Pinchas a large man
with powerful arms
and excellent aim

were Cozbi and Zimri conscious
of imitating the keruvim
who embraced inside the mishkan

did the cherubs turn their backs
when Pinchas speared the lovers
through the belly

The Ishbitzer tells us
their souls were connected
and death brought them freedom

but I wonder
how many interfaith couples
will experience this parsha

like a blow to the gut
like proof they're not wanted
like exile all over again

Last week's parsha, Balak, ended with a story about how the Israelites took to whoring after the Midianites, and an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into the community. (Later commentaries would say that they were copulating right in the doorway of the ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting.) Pinchas speared the two through the belly, and God's anger was assuaged. (Find the story at the beginning of Numbers 25.)

This week's parsha, Pinchas, begins immediately after the spearing incident. God rewards Pinchas for his actions with an eternal pact of friendship and priesthood. The story has always been profoundly difficult for me. I've heard teachings from the Ishbitzer rebbe about this parsha, suggesting that Cozbi and Zimri (the lovers in question; their names appear in this week's portion) were bashert (fated to be together) from before the creation of the world, and that death was actually a blessing for them. He also taught that the covenant of priesthood was not a reward for Pinchas' violent behavior, but rather a corrective. I admire the Ishbitzer's struggle to make this story palatable, but it's still a painful text.

The reference in stanzas 2 and 3 is to the keruvim (cherubs) depicted atop the Ark of the Covenant inside the mishkan (tabernacle). Tradition tells us they faced one another, enacting between them the kind of I-Thou relationship we're meant to embody with one another and with God. There's a midrash that the keruvim faced one another lovingly when the Israelites were behaving righteously, and that they turned their backs on one another in shame and sorrow when the Israelites did something wrong.

While we're talking about poetry, I want to point to two poems by Adonis, translated from the Arabic; they're gorgeous, and being here in Jerusalem I find them especially powerful. Thanks for the link, Dave.

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