Torah | Should we behave zealously or studiously

Numbers 25:10-30:1
I Kings 18:46-19:21


Whoever divided this and last week’s Torah portion must be the spiritual great-great-grandparent of modern-day suspense movies. Last week, we left the children of Israel in the middle of turmoil. After Balaam’s failure to curse the people, he advises King Balak to get the girls of Midian and Moab to seduce the Israelite men and entice them to idol worship. A plague follows a party. Moses, confused at the scene, awaits God’s instructions. Then Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Simeon, approaches, wrapped provocatively around a Midianite princess. The Midrash fills us in: Zimri says to Moses, “You have a problem with this? Why? You yourself took a Midianite woman to be your wife! So we’re just like you!”

Moses is dumbfounded, but Pinchas knows what to do. He grabs a sword and skews both Zimri and his lady, Kozbi, together. They die, the plague stops, and everybody takes a deep breath.

The Torah keeps us hanging: Is Pinchas a hero or a dangerous lunatic?

God rewards him with brit shalom, a covenant of peace. Pinchas “has turned My wrath away from the Children of Israel, as he was very jealous for My sake among them” (Numbers 25:11).

What is it about Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, a high priest who engages in bloodshed, that merits this special brit shalom? Some say it may be because of the words “among them.” Pinchas did what he did not for personal gain, but for the sake of the people and their well-being. Others note the spelling of the word “shalom” (shin lamed mem without a vav): Pinchas receives a covenant, but it’s a one-time thing. Complete peace comes from a life filled with kindness, not from one brief act. And perhaps, it is because he saw himself as personally obligated to sanctifying God’s name. Often we pretend the commandments are spoken to an amorphous “everybody” and that “somebody” will act. Pinchas knew better. He assumed responsibility. A mensch!

Modern fanatics like to align themselves with Pinchas. And yet, from their somewhat forced explanations we can sense that the rabbis did not want to encourage this kind of behavior, and that they struggled to understand Pinchas and his reward. True, there are situations when one needs to act quickly and swiftly, when life must be sacrificed, but this is rare and not our role model.

Therefore, the rabbis created a break between last week’s and this week’s parashah. They also taught that even on years when we combine Torah sections due to changes in the calendar (as is the case in a leap year), the Torah portion of Pinchas is always read by itself. The zealots, they told us, may sometimes be right in their actions, but let us be extra careful and generally stay away from them and their ways.

Toward the end of the parashah, we meet Moses again, explaining how the land should be divided among the tribes, allocating it to men and their sons. Five sisters approach him: “Our father died in the desert … and left no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, [just] because he had no son? Give unto us a [land] inheritance among the brethren of our father” (Numbers 27:1-11).

What would Moses do? Draw his sword? Hasten with a quick ruling? No. Instead, Moses “brought their case before God,”  and God uses their plea to highlight an exception: “Yes, the daughters of Zelophehad are correct; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren” (27:7).

What if Moses acted like Pinchas, shooting from the hip, and what if Pinchas paused hesitatingly, submitting debatable legal questions to God? And mostly, we want to know, we need to know: Which is which in our own life?

I see the Torah nodding with a smile. Life is more complex and nuanced than we think. In spite of the laws, commandments, guidelines and regulations, there is always going to be something that was not covered in the original material; something that will demand of us to stay awake, taking a risk and making our own choices.

Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.