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Pinchas 2008

Dvar Torah

Two hundred years ago the Foreign Minister of Napoleonic France was Count Talleyrand, a highly capable but cynical statesman. One of his best-known aphorisms was to urge his fellow politicians to display “pas trop de zele” (“not too much zeal”). In the days when I used to be called upon to give talks about the contemporary Jewish community, this was a phrase I often quoted to explain the numerical decline in British Jewry. We suffered from an excess of ZEAL. How so? The demographic decline in the number of British Jews could be accounted for by four factors;
    Z= Zionism (ie emigration to Israel)
    E= exogamy (outmarriage)
    A=Assimilation (merging into secular society)
    L= Low birth rate (failing to match the death rate)

In today’s Sedra and Haftara, we find at least four meditations on this theme of zeal. In the limited time available I shall speak only of Pinchas and Elijah. But we should also note the remarkable spiritual zeal shown by the daughters of Zelophehad , who prevailed in a legal debate with Moses for the sake of preserving their deceased father’s name. We should also recall that in the appointment of Joshua as Moses’ successor we find another man who was noted for his zeal. Moses had even rebuked him for his zeal when he sought to suppress two of the elders of the people from prophesying in the Sedra of Behaalotecha (11:29).

First, however, a little Gematria. The numerical value of Pinchas is 208. That is precisely four times the numerical value of Elijah (52). The difference between those two numbers is 156. That is the numerical value of the very Hebrew word which links the two main characters of this week’s Sedra and Haftara, namely Kinah, which is zeal or jealousy.

The zeal of Pinchas

So let us return to the spirit of Pinchas, and for much of what follows I am indebted to Rav Chanoch Waxman from the Yeshiva Har Etzion website. Parashat Pinchas opens with G-d declaring the reward of Pinchas. In a systematic fashion, G-d delineates both the rationale for the reward and the contents of the reward. The text of the Torah reads as follows:

Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Priest, has turned my wrath away from the Children of Israel, in that he was vengeful for my sake (be-kano et kinati) amongst them, and I did not consume completely the Children of Israel with my vengeance (be-kinati). Therefore say, Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace. And he shall have it, and his descendants after him, the covenant of priesthood everlasting, because he was vengeful (kinai) for his God, and made atonement for the Children of Israel. (25:10-13)

Upon witnessing the brazen actions of the Israelite man, later identified as Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, and the Midianite princess Cozbi, Pinchas took action. Following them into the tent they had entered, he impaled them both and the plague that had broken out amongst the people ceased. For his courage, and in merit having turned G-d's wrath from the people, G-d grants Pinchas his "covenant of peace". Pinchas, a descendant of Aharon not previously numbered amongst the designated priests, is elevated to the priesthood.
As sketched here, the actions of Pinchas are heroic. By simple logic if a particular action is rewarded by G-d, it constitutes the right and just action. If such were not the case, G-d would not reward the action. Moreover, G-d himself describes the action of Pinchas as "turning his wrath" away from the people and "achieving atonement". Twenty-four thousand members of the Children of Israel had already died in the plague that resulted from the people engaging in immorality with the daughters of Moab and Midian. If not for the initiative of Pinchas, and the atonement achieved by his actions, even more would have died. Indeed, in a certain sense, Pinchas carries out the role of G-d. As such, there is no need for G-d to continue to consume the people with his vengeance, the ongoing plague. So Pinchas's actions are not merely heroic, just and for the sake of heaven. They even border on the divine.

Conduct unbecoming

This interpretation may generate a sense of discomfort. After all, is it not theologically problematic to attribute vengefulness to God? And is vengefulness a desirable trait and action, an integral part of the values and ethics desired by the Torah?    In commenting on the story of Pinchas, the Talmud Yerushalmi makes the following striking claim:

Pinchas acted against the will of the wise men. Rabbi Yehuda…said: They desired to excommunicate him. If not for the divine spirit that sprung upon him and said: And he shall have it, and his descendants after him, the covenant of priesthood everlasting… (Sanhedrin 9:7)

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the action of Pinchas was perceived by the Rabbinic establishment as inappropriate. As punishment for his brazenness, Pinchas merited excommunication. Only divine intervention and divine sanctioning of Pinchas's initiative prevented his punishment. On the simple level, this opinion of the Talmud may be seen as concerned with the proper functioning of the judicial system. Pinchas had just engaged in what we term in modern terminology an extrajudicial killing. While the Torah and Talmudic law specifies the requirement of witnesses and other judicial apparatus (see Devarim 17:6 and Ibn Ezra 25:7), Pinchas acted as judge, jury and executioner.

The text actually provides some support for R. Yehuda's interpretation and helps reveal another dimension of meaning. Right before Pinchas’ action, Moshe had commanded the "Judges of Israel" to kill all those who had "attached themselves to Ba'al Peor. In other words, Moses had commanded the execution of justice by the judicial system upon those who had strayed after the foreign women and foreign gods. But Pinchas bypassed the slowly turning wheels of justice and performed his zealous elimination of Zimri and Cozbi. Moreover, the text specifies that the entire event occurs in a public context, "in front of the eyes of Moshe and the eyes of the entire congregation". From this perspective, the actions of Pinchas comprise not just a bypassing of the judicial system and extrajudicial killing, but the very serious violation known in the Talmud as "teaching Halakha in front of one's teacher" (Bavli Berakhot 31b, Sanhedrin 17a). Proper rabbinic doctrine requires not just procedure, but also respect for hierarchy and authority. Pinchas rises in front of Moshe his teacher, the ultimate religious and legal authority of the Children of Israel, and without waiting for word or approval from Moshe carries out a different punishment from that mandated by Moshe. While Moses had commanded the judges to hang the sinners (see Rashi, Ibn Ezra 25:4, Ramban 25:5), Pinchas impaled them. While this may seem a minor matter, Pinchas is not a judge, he does not receive the go-ahead from the proper authority and his revolutionary action occurs in front of the entire community. In a certain sense, Pinchas's act is an act of subversion that could threaten the social structure, legal hierarchy and leadership structure of the Children of Israel. No wonder the Jerusalem Talmud states that "they desired to excommunicate him." No self respecting court could do otherwise. While Pinchas's actions had clearly saved the day, no structure can tolerate subversion and revolution.
So there is clearly a tension between the institutional leadership of Moshe and the almost rebellious role of Pinchas. This in turn brings us back to the issue of kina, the question of zealousness, passion and vengeance that we began with. In this episode, Moshe does not act with zealousness and passion at Shittim. He simply operates the wheels of justice. Whilst this is in marked contrast to Pinchas, this is not the first time that Moses rejected the concept of zeal. 38 years earlier he had rebuked Joshua for being over-zealous in wishing to suppress Eldad and Medad for the act of prophesying in the camp. Moses questions Joshua as to his kina for Moses’ sake (11:29). He clearly has no need for kina and frowns upon it.

Elijah’s misplaced zeal

This tension between the leadership of Moses on the one hand and the attribute of kina on the other is further strengthened by the parallels we find in this week’s Haftara . This particular Haftara is hardly ever read, because usually this Sedra falls within the Three Weeks, when the Haftara for next week’s Sedra is substituted. But it is a remarkable episode from the Book of Kings I depicting the life of Elijah. Following his victory over the prophets of Ba'al on Mount Carmel, Elijah was forced to flee to the desert. After prompting by an angel and a bit of food and water, the text reports that Elijah embarks on a journey of "forty days and forty nights" which culminates at "Horeb, the mountain of God" (19:8). The imagery of "forty days and forty nights" sustained without food and water conjures up Moshe's later experience at that very same place, usually known as Sinai. The point of this parallel between Elijah and Moses seems to be to set the scene for the forthcoming conversation and revelation of G-d.

The central part of the narrative of Elijah at Horeb begins with a conversation in which G-d asks Elijah, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah responds as follows:

I have been vengeful (kano kinaiti) for the Lord G-d of Hosts: for the Children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and slain your prophets with the sword…And they seek my life to take it.    (19:10)

At this point, G-d conducts a little demonstration for Elijah. After commanding him to stand on the mountain "in front of the Lord," G-d informs Elijah that he will "pass by". A great and mighty wind ensues, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. But G-d was not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. Rather, G-d was present only in the still small voice that followed the wind, earthquake and fire.  Upon hearing the voice, Elijah exits the cave he was in and covers his face. Strangely enough, at this point G-d reiterates his original question. He questions Elijah with the exact same words. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" whispers the divine voice. And once again Elijah repeats his previous response word for word.

I have been vengeful (kano kinaiti) for the Lord G-d of Hosts: for the Children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars and slain your prophets with the sword…And they seek my life to take it.    (19:14)

All that has happened to Elijah has happened because of who he is. He is the righteous and zealous prophet of the Lord. He has acted with kina as he should and has been persecuted for his just and correct actions. But what is most significant is that, by repeating the identical words after the revelation in response to G-d's repeated question, Elijah demonstrates that from his perspective nothing has changed. G-d's sign, the sign of the still small voice, has had no effect on Elijah. His words after are the same as his words before. And this indicates that Elijah has missed the point of the revelation. And so it was that G-d went on to inform Elijah that his task on earth is at an end and that he should anoint Elisha in his stead (19:16).

Moses’ perception of mercy

So what was it that Elijah missed? What was the sign of the still small voice? If we go back to what Moses saw on the mountain of Horeb after forty days with no food or drink, he had a revelation of something completely new. In contrast to Elijah, Moses perceived the famed attributes of mercy. When G-d passed in front of him, Moses proclaimed the Thirteen Attributes of Faith. He perceived the divine attributes by which G-d promised to lead the Children of Israel. In his experience of the "passing by" of G-d, Moses perceived mercy, kindness, patience, slowness to anger and the like. These merciful attributes, revealed as part of the process of the making of the second set of tablets and reconstitution of the covenant following the Sin of the Golden Calf, mark a radical change from the previous revelation of G-d's attributes found in the Torah. If we look at the second commandment, G-d had described himself as primarily a vengeful God (el kana). His kindness is confined to those who "love him" and keep his commandments. Justice, punishment and divine vengeance constitute the fates of sinners. Now, in Moshe's revelation, there is no mention of vengeance or punishment. In its place, the aspects of G-d that Moses perceived when God passed by were the primary attributes of mercy. The difference between these attributes and the previous definition of "a vengeful God" could not be greater.
This brings us back to Elijah and what he was supposed to perceive in the sign of the still small voice. Why did G-d bring him to Sinai and place him in the same position and place of Moshe? Simply put, Elijah should have perceived what Moses perceived. Just as Moses perceived mercy, kindness and a complete absence of kina, the attribute of vengeance and zealousness, when G-d "passed by," so too Elijah should have perceived the same or similar divine attributes. But Elijah only knows kina, the way of passion, zealousness, and fiery vengeance. He can no longer serve as prophet and leader and God informs him so.

Tension between Moses and Pinchas

But these ways, the methods of mercy, graciousness, and slowness to anger, the textual opposite of kina in Sefer Shemot, are very much the ways of Moses and his leadership. They are the way in which God has promised to lead his people, the mode of providence which a prophet and leader needs to understand, emulate and exemplify. So if finally we return to Pinchas, we can see that Moses in his character and mode of leadership eschews the attribute of kina, the passion of zealotry and vengeance, which Pinchas embodies. Hence the clear tension between Moses on the one hand and Pinchas on the other.

But we have already seen that G-d has endorsed Pinchas’ actions, even though they contradict Moses’ own values and style of leadership which he learned at Horeb. The only way of reconciling this tension is by recognising that extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary action. The institutional leadership cannot deal with the radical and revolutionary act of Zimri. Only a radical act, a revolutionary breaking of norms for the sake of heaven, can balance the radical and revolutionary act of Zimri. Only Pinchas and his kina for the sake of God can save the day. Every leadership structure needs to be renewed upon occasion. Things need to be shaken up, and entrenched structures need to be shattered. They need to be built again with new blood, energy, verve and passion. Elevating Pinchas to the role of high priest serves exactly this purpose. He becomes part of the system. In this light, the story of Pinchas constitutes part of the theme of leadership transition prominent in the latter part of Sefer Bamidbar.
The betrayed husband

It is interesting that numerous midrashim suggest that while Moses and his judges had forgotten the particular law in question and were busy debating whether Zimri was liable to the death penalty, Pinchas remembered the appropriate principle. They propose that there is no tension between Moses and Pinchas. Pinchas is ever the loyal student, acting upon and putting into place the rules of the Torah. If we go back to the behaviour which provoked Pinchas’ actions, we see the Children of Israel committing immorality with the daughters of Moab and sacrificing to their gods. In this context, G-d stands in the role of the betrayed and consequently, jealous or vengeful husband. The people abandon their covenantal relationship with G-d for a foreign god. In Sedra Naso we read of the Sota, the story of the woman who has either committed adultery or whose husband has reason to think that she has betrayed him This passage utilises the stem k.n.a., the root of the term variously translated as "vengeful," "zealous" or "jealous," a full ten times. The Torah describes the betrayed husband as filled with "the spirit of vengeance/jealousy". It is G-d's love and passion for Israel, their covenantal relationship and the problem of double betrayal with foreign women and foreign gods that is signaled by the use of this term to describe G-d. In this context, G-d is the jealous and vengeful betrayed husband.
So when Zimri brings the Midianite princess in front of the eyes of Moshe and the congregation, he commits far more than just a brazen act of adultery. This is part of the process of seducing the Children of Israel from their allegiance to G-d.  It is in this context that Pinchas acts. He acts to counteract Zimri. His kina is in accord with God's kina. It is the passionate, zealous and jealous anger of the betrayed whose beloved has strayed. In other words, Pinchas acts in accord with a clear set of criteria, already set down by God in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf. He acts in accord with the divine wish already telegraphed in the plague and confirmed in its aftermath. While kina may have been limited by the revelation of the attributes of mercy, it still has its time and place.

Transition in leadership
As for Moses, did he not remember the warning of God given in the aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf? Did he not realise that a leader is sometimes called to emulate the harsher side of God's leadership? After all, in the immediate aftermath of the Golden Calf, he had himself acted the Pinchas/betrayed husband role. There he was   full of vengeance and violence for G-d's sake. But 38 years later, after leading the fractious and ever complaining Children of Israel for all that time, Moses’ attachment to the people is not what it once was. They are rebels and in their constant rebellion they have doomed him to never entering the land (Devarim 4:21). He is no longer their eternal leader, and a new generation of leaders is destined to lead the people over the Jordan. From this perspective, it is not surprising that at Shittim, Moses cannot or will not muster up the passion to play the role of the betrayed husband. While the leader must sometimes emulate one divine attribute and sometimes another, the attribute of kina and the passionate attachment it demands are no longer the role of Moses. Thus it is left to Pinchas to avenge the betrayal of God, to restore the covenant, and to underline the transition in leadership. Let us give the last word to Lord Tennyson:
    “The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
    And G-d fulfils Himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Neville Nagler     19th July 2008

More documents on this Parshah: