Pinchas gets a little stabby in this week's Torah portion. But does the Torah say that's OK?
Pinchas gets a little stabby in this week's Torah portion. But does the Torah say that's OK?

Does the Torah sanction acts of zealotry?

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Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

I Kings 18:46 – 19:21

In one of the more visceral scenes in the Torah, last week’s parashah ended with the impalement of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman engaged in an act of licentiousness, against a backdrop of idol worship and debauchery. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, took spear in hand and pinned them through with a mortal blow, demonstrating a zealousness that, until this day, connects him with a kind of vigilantism rare in the Torah and in Jewish life.

We recoil from this scene, reading it with fascination, intrigue, revulsion. Rashi, the medieval French rabbi and commentator, imagined that the biblical audience was similarly horrified: “Instead of applauding Pinchas, the people accused him of wanton murder,” he asserted 1,000 years ago. He voiced the sentiment that despite the express command to have “each man kill his men who are attached to [the Moabite god] Baal Peor” (Numbers 25:5), there is something very wrong with Pinchas’ choice.

Yet, he was immediately rewarded. The plague afflicting the transgressing people ceased at once (though 24,000 had died), and God declares in the opening of this week’s eponymous parashah: “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore, tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him…” (Numbers 25:11-13).

God calms his anger and spares further deaths among the Israelites. But a brit shalom? A “covenant of peace” for playing judge, jury and executioner in one swift and terrifying fell swoop? The modern mind, and especially the modern Jewish mind, is confounded at the thought.

If Pinchas’ story ended here, we might imagine that he lived out his days in quiet contentment, sure of God’s favor and reliving his moment of glory with anyone who would listen. But we meet him again, this time on the other side of the Jordan River. As the Jews enter the Promised Land, the brit shalom proves to be not a reward but a condition — a directive for how Pinchas is now expected to live and lead.

In the Book of Joshua, the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half of Manasseh have been allowed to live on the east side of the Jordan River, apart from the majority of their brethren. But they erect an altar, occasioning a near-call to arms. Did they plan to offer sacrifices there and claim their own holy site? This was not to be done. Joshua dispatches a high-level delegation to ferret out the tribes’ intentions, and at the head of the delegation is Pinchas. Not alone this time, but flanked by 10 tribal chiefs, he now occupies the role of statesman and negotiator, sent to avert a civil war.

Pinchas reminds the tribes (and us) of the incident at Baal Peor, “from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves” (Joshua 22:17), suggesting it has left an indelible mark on his soul, and appealing to the tribes to not stir up internecine conflict. Instead of reacting with emotion and a lethal weapon, he listens. He listens to the cogent arguments of the two and a half tribes, who maintain that the altar is symbolic only, a visual link to their kinsmen on the other side of the river. And Pinchas does more than listen; he hears. Convinced of the tribes’ loyalty and honor, he speaks on their behalf, “and the report was good in the eyes of the people” (Joshua 22:32). The promise of the brit shalom has borne fruit.

But one final clue in the Torah confirms that this tale of Pinchas is anything but simple. A calligraphic anomaly appears in the words “brit shalom”; the letter vav in shalom is broken. Normally, this would render a Torah scroll unfit for use and in need of repair, but here it is done with purpose.

Rabbi Berel Wein teaches that the broken vav conveys a fundamental truth, “that peace is very fragile, almost always difficult to maintain and it requires great effort to keep it together.” Although there had been a sanctioned “time to kill” or “slaying” (Ecclesiastes 3:3) the broken vav affirms that Pinchas’ “act of zealotry is not to be a permanent policy of Jewish behavior,” he writes. Instead, the fervency and fire of the scene at Baal Peor should be channeled into an equally dedicated path of tikkun, of seeking out opportunities to soothe our broken world.

There may still be times when the sword and spear seem the only answer. Evidence abounds that this is a choice we are still not ready to relegate to the past. May those times be few and far between, and may the time of healing be soon at hand.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].