Shabbat Greetings

Our portion this week opens right after the priest, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1), has committed a vigilante act and has executed an Israelite prince, along with his Midianite girlfriend, for having engaged in a public demonstration of illicit sexual activity and idolatrous acts. Our portion has God seemingly celebrate this action. In recognition of his zealotry, Pinchas is awarded God’s Covenant of Peace (25:12).

This story is filled with many difficulties. Our attitude towards those who put themselves outside and above the law is one of cautious disapproval, at the least, moving on to fear, revulsion and active opposition. But, the truth is, this is our attitude toward others who, in our eyes, act as vigilantes. It is all too common for people to condemn others for the same actions for which they excuse themselves. When we are convinced that we are right, we allow ourselves to go outside and above the law. It is a rare individual or group who allows the law to dictate their actions, even when they think they know better.

In today’s political climate, whether regarding domestic and foreign policies of the US, or with regard to Israel and the Middle East, as opposing sides become more radicalized and extreme, there is increasing danger that self-righteous and overly zealous rhetoric will lead to extremist and violent actions that go beyond the limits of the law. Our Torah portion has the dangerous potential of being used to validate such impulses. So it is vitally important that we emphasize our long tradition of limiting and even frowning upon using Pinchas as a model.

Yet how are we to understand God’s response as recorded in the Torah. At first glance it seems quite clear and positive. Nevertheless, any serious reader of the Torah will know that this text is no more obvious in its meaning than other texts, especially when we feel how problematic it is. Besides calling attention to our long tradition of rejection of celebrating Pinchas’s deed, I wish to add another set of considerations to this issue. There are two crucial aspects of this story that we must recall when we begin to get tempted by vigilante advocates.

The first thing to remember is that Pinchas’s act was done impulsively and spontaneously. There is no defense or excuse for a pre-meditated vigilante act of violence. Our tradition has declared loud and clear – if one asks whether one is allowed to act as Pinchas did, the very asking shows that one is not being “zealous for God,” and one is forbidden to carry out any such contemplated actions.

Beyond this, I wish to point out that God’s response should not be seen as a simple reward. Pinchas was not granted some new status that he did not already possess. Rather, what God declared was that, after having acted – only once – in a violent and impulsive manner, even though it was “for good cause,” Pinchas was now – forever – charged with the mission to try to make peace. Peace is, indeed, a blessing. But the ongoing command to try to make peace bestows a daunting, thankless and often very dangerous task.

When Cain committed the first murder, he was sentenced to wander the earth. When Pinchas committed the first religious vigilante execution, he was sentenced, from then on, to the much more enduring and difficult task of working on behalf of peace. It is this part of Pinchas’ legacy that we must emulate.