Saturday, June 27, 2009

My Commentary on Parashat Pinchas for United Jewish Communities

Our Parsha this week begins (Numbers 25:10 - 13):

God spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion (Keena) for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion (Keenati). Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace (Brit Shalom). It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned (Keena) action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”

We remember from the end of last week’s Parsha that Pinchas' passion led him to kill the Israelite Zimri who was flaunting his relationship with the Midianite Cozbi in front of the Tent of Meeting. This occurs just after God ordered the killing of the Israelite men who had been led astray to worship Baal Peor by some Moabite women.

We often refer to Pinchas' passion as zealousness and our text has God rewarding Pinchas for taking up God's passion/anger at the idolatry of the Israelites. In this sense Pinchas acted from his understanding that at our essence we are created in the image of God and thus we must act "godly". If God ordered the killing of the Israelite men for idolatry, Pinchas could kill Zimri and Cozbi.

We are not comfortable with zealousness, especially religious zealousness. Everyday we read of killing and oppression "in God's name." While our rabbis expected halachic observance and loyalty to God, they too understood the danger of religious zealousness to the human soul.

God's promise to Pinchas that the priesthood would flow from his line comes to fruition at the end of the book of Joshua as he takes over the office of the High Priest from his father Eleazar. He serves in that role throughout the book of Judges and held office following the victory of Jepthah. Jepthah promised to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his home upon his return from victorious battle. We know it was his daughter that came out to greet him and ends up as the sacrifice. In Bereishit Rabbah 60:3 the rabbis condemn Jepthah for his lack of foresight and his arrogance. He could have approached the High Priest, our very same Pinchas, and asked him to annul his vow but instead said: "Am I, the chief of Israel's leaders, to go to Pinchas!". Of course, as High Priest, Pinchas could have gone to Jepthah and offered to annul the vow. They write: "Pinchas, however, said: He needs me, and I am to go to him! Moreover, I am a High Priest and the son of a High Priest; shall I then go to an ignoramus?" The rabbis go on to say that it was at that moment of refusal to act in mercy that God withdraws from Pinchas and Jepthah is condemned to die a horrible death. Of course, Jepthah's daughter, who both Pinchas and Jepthah see as being so insignificant she remains nameless in the text, is the one sacrificed.

Pinchas in his zealousness to act "Godly" began to think of himself as "god-like". He only remembered the part of God's blessing that "elevated" him to the office of High Priest. Pinchas allowed his zealousness and hubris to forget the other part of the gift from God - the Brit Shalom. As leaders in the Jewish community we need to remember that we carry an awesome (in its original sense) responsibility. We need to strive to reclaim the Brit Shalom by setting aside our self perception as being "god-like" and risk sacrificing those who count on us most. By rejecting being “god-like” for being godly, we ensure that all those in our community, from the lowest to the highest, also find their Brit Shalom with God.