Numbers 25:10 – 26:4
There is nothing easy about the story of Pinchas. At the end of last week’s parasha, God is angry because the people are worshipping idols. Moses, on behalf of God, commands the judges of Israel to kill any of their men who worship the Canaanite god Baal Peor. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, saw an Israelite chieftain in bed with a Midianite princess whose people worshipped Baal Peor; he grabbed his spear and skewered the two together, killing them with one thrust.
That is the end of the portion.
So, what happens next? Parashat Pinchas. This week’s parasha opens as God speaks to Moses and announces that Pinchas has saved the rest of Israel through his quick action. Even more, God not only rewards Pinchas with a special Covenant of Peace, but also grants an additional Covenant of Perpetual Priesthood for him and all of his descendants. No other person in all of Hebrew Bible is granted either of these covenants.
How do we make sense of this passage? Does Torah really teach us to be zealots, to become religious extremists? Is this what God truly wants of us?
On the surface, the answer seems to be yes. However, the rabbinic tradition is a little more ambivalent. On the one hand, who are we to question God? On the other hand, where does this kind of behavior lead us?
The sages hesitated to criticize God. If God commanded the deaths of idol worshippers, then Pinchas was correct in his action and deserving of his reward. Yet, the rabbis also taught that God no longer commands us to kill in the name of God, and warned us about the dangers of crossing the line from righteousness to self-righteousness. They ask us to walk a delicate line between a literal reading of the text, and how what we learn from the text should influence our own actions.
Perhaps the best response came from Rabbi Yehuda Leib Eiger (1817-88), whose words ring true now more than ever:
The two parashiyot preceding Pinchas, namely Hukkat and Balak, are in most cases read together on one Sabbath, and the same is true for the two following it, Mattot and Masa’ei. On the other hand, Parashat Pinchas is always read by itself. The reason is because Pinchas was a zealot, and every zealot is on his own. Woe to the generation whose zealots unite. (Itturei Torah, Parashat Pinchas)
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras