July, 5, 2023
In this week’s parasha, Pinchas, we are confronted with a disturbing idea: violence as a means to an end. As a consequence for their immoral and idolatrous behavior, G-d sends a plague upon the Israelites. Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, decides to take matters into his own hands to bring an end to G-d’s wrath and the awful plague. The parasha opens in a most gruesome way. With spear in hand, Pinchas kills the Jewish leader Zimri and the Midianite princess Cozbi, who are blatantly engaged in an immoral act at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.
What makes this scene even more unsettling is that G-d seems to be okay with how Pinchas handles the situation. In fact, G-d rewards this violent behavior by giving Pinchas a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. Confusing and unsettling, to say the least.
Consider that whenever we put the Torah away we sing these words from Eitz Chaim:
דרכיה דרכי נעם, וכל - נתיבותיה שלום
Deracheha - d'rechei no-am,
Vechol netivotecha shalom
Its ways are ways of pleasantness
and all its paths are peace.
How do we understand this incongruity? Even if we see Pinchas as a passionate hero who, in his own way, truly believed his behavior was necessary, can we really say that the way of Pinchas is pleasant? Is his really a peaceful path? And if part of our ongoing relationship with Torah is to extract contemporary wisdom from this story, what can we learn? Because as is true in every era, we need to understand how to travel on paths of peace.
Maybe we need to turn the phrase from Eitz Chaim, viewing it from a different vantage point. Rather than focusing on the word peace maybe the power is in the other words: “All its paths.” This points to the reality of diversity, multiple points of view, varied experiences. And of course there is the need to peer more deeply into a situation--looking for nuance–for subtleties give rise to complexity.
All its paths are peace. Okay, that means even the ones we don’t understand. Even the ones we don’t like. Even the ones that make us incredibly uncomfortable. How can we expand our focus to hold this possibility?
We are living in times that require us to use all our sensibilities so that we can fully understand and think through issues. We have to weigh what is real, what is fake, what is manipulative, what is truth, what is important, what is irrelevant.
Is Pinchas a violent extremist or a principled, courageous hero? Is he an out of control zealot, or a measured rationalist doing what needs to be done–as awful as it might seemr? Maybe Pinchas is a multifaceted and textured person, beyond an easy slotting into “this” or “that.” Can we expand beyond these simplistic opposites? Parashat Pinchas challenges us to build our tolerance for the gray zone–that which defies duality.
Torah holds complicated truths and stories that test our comfort. It is important to wrestle with these stories because the world presents us with the same. May we learn to embrace complicated truths and disparate realities. May we learn to find the peaceful path in zones of discomfort.