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Taking note of 17 Tammuz

Transforming violence into peace (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

Parashat Pinchas is another one of those Torah portions that's hard for many contemporary liberal Jews to read comfortably.

The story begins at the tail-end of last week's portion, when the eponymous Pinchas spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman -- called, in later texts, Zimri and Cosbi -- who are consorting at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. God has declared a plague against the Israelites as punishment for "whoring with Moabite women" -- if we read it literally, the problem is exogamy; if we read it metaphorically, the problem is the spiritual idolatry involved in offering sacrifices to somebody else's deity -- but after Pinchas kills the pair of lovers, the plague ends.

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.

Last summer at this season I had the pleasure of learning about this portion from Rabbi David Ingber (who has since then become the founder of Romemu.) He led us through a passage from the Mei HaShiloach, a.k.a. Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitz (also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe), who makes a pretty compelling case that Pinchas' actions were a mistake.

Pinchas acted as he did because he saw the action of Zimri as a great evil, the Ishbitzer writes:

[Pinchas] judged Zimri as no'ef b'alma (sexually corrupt.) However, the depth of the foundation of the matter was hidden from him, for Cosbi was his [Zimri's] soulmate from the six days of creation, as explained in the writings of the Rabbi Isaac Luria, z"l. Owing to this Moshe Rabeynu didn't become involved and sentence Zimri to death. Pinchas' response in this action is thus compared to a child, meaning that he didn't know the depth of the situation, seeing only through human eyes and no further. Nevertheless, the blessed God loved him and agreed with him, for in Pinchas's mind he had done a great and self-sacrificing act in his zealotry.

Pinchas, the Ishbitzer is saying, did not have the wisdom required to understand the situation fully. He saw inappropriate sexuality, and took it upon himself to punish it...but if he could have seen what was really going on, he would have known that Zimri and Cosbi were soulmates, a pairing foreordained at the moment of creation. And if he had known that, he would have behaved in an entirely different way.

The Ishbitzer tells us this displays a kind of childlike consciousness. Pinchas leaps to conclusions in anger, and acts accordingly, as a child might do. In the eyes of the Ishbitzer, the covenant of peace is meant as a corrective for that action. Of course, it's a loving corrective, because God -- being God -- understands both what Pinchas did, and what his intentions were. Pinchas lost balance between his sense of judgement and his sense of compassion; God restores that balance by giving him a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, to change his character and the character of his descendants.

It's a radical teaching. It contradicts the conventional wisdom offered by Rashi and Ramban, both of whom declared that Pinchas's vengeance was good in God's eyes and that the covenant was a reward for good behavior. But I think it's a powerful way to read the text, and a natural extension of the Ishbitzer's fundamental teaching:

First and foremost, everything is in the hands of Heaven. Everything that we receive in our lives, we are receiving directly from the blessed G-d. It is then the work of man in the world to develop a mind that is conscious of this reality... Man must work...to know what G-d wants of him specifically in his life. He must also then know that G-d's will could change at any time... This also necessitates that he not assume that what G-d wants from him is the same as that which he wants from another. Even if he sees another transgressing the Torah, he may not assume that the other is rebelling against G-d's will, for he has no way of knowing the private relationship between the other and G-d.

(That's from the translator's introduction to Living Waters: the Mei HaShiloach, which can be found here.) According to this understanding, each of us has the responsibility to work at discerning God's will in our lives -- and we're obligated to focus on our own paths, not on the path we perceive anyone else to be taking.

Pinchas acted according to his discernment of what the situation called for: a quick spear through the pair of lovers. The Ishbitzer would suggest that it's not our place to condemn him for that, since we don't know the inner truth of what his relationship with God was like. The Ishbitzer suggests that Pinchas acted on partial knowledge, and that when one sees the whole picture it looks quite different: a foreordained lovers' embrace, rather than a sexual desecration of holy space. I think that's the critical teaching here. Not that Pinchas messed up, though it's arguable that he did, but that when one takes a step back to look at a situation in a larger perspective, it may appear in a new way.

And maybe that's what happened for Pinchas after he was given the brit shalom: a new perspective, a changed point of view, a gentler and more forgiving way of being in the world. And if we work at it, I think that's what studying parashat Pinchas can offer to us, too.