Numbers 25:10 — 30:1
TRIENNIAL YEAR III
Numbers 28:16 — 30:1
Jeremiah 1:1 — 2:3
If you’ve been in an airport, on a train or in many public buildings over the past 10 years, or even driven over one of the area bridges, you’ve seen signs everywhere with the message, “If you see something, say something.” We teach our children that if an adult asks them to do something that they feel is wrong, they need to tell someone they can trust. We also know that speaking up and doing the right thing isn’t always easy; being a whistle blower can be a dangerous proposition.
Pinchas ben Elezar is such a whistle blower, and as we begin this week’s parashah, Pinchas is rewarded by God for his actions in last week’s parashah, where he killed an Israelite man and a Midianite princess who were behaving inappropriately at the door of the tent of meeting. Pinchas’ zealousness also ended a plague sent by God that was killing many of the Israelites who had been led astray by Moabite women and were worshipping a foreign God.
While the text is very clear that God condoned Pinchas’ actions, it smacks of the kind of vigilante justice we associate with the Wild West, not with someone who’s serving God as a member of the priestly class. Our sages were uncomfortable with the message this sent, and various commentaries try to explain it, perhaps apologetically.
There are a lot of challenging texts in our sacred literature, and we have choices when deciding how to respond. One way is to consider what we might learn from it. I’m sure God wasn’t thrilled with the killing, but on the other hand, no one else tried to stop the pair; Moses and the Israelites were just standing around weeping over the plague. It’s similar to the big brother taking on the bully. To me, Pinchas’ action – and God’s approval – teach us that we must take a stand against injustice and speak up when we see something happening that’s clearly wrong.
In defense of Pinchas, we could argue that he acted in society’s best interest, and that the good of the many outweighs the need of a few. It happens in war, in politics, and in organizations. It could also be argued that what the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite princess Cosbi, were doing presented an even clearer danger to the community. For example, what if they were on a killing spree? Pinchas would have been hailed as a hero for taking decisive action and restoring order.
We know from many other times in the Torah that God is jealous and has a temper, and that Moses is often the one to talk God down off the ledge, saving the people from God’s destructive anger. In chapter 25, verse 11 God tells Moses that “Phinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kkohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.” For this, God offers Pinchas a b’rit shalom, a covenant of peace, or friendship. Rashi, the great medieval commentator explains that “just as a man owes gratitude and favor to someone who did him a favor, so here God expressed to Pinchas His feelings of peace.”
God could easily have taken the role of prosecutor instead of defense attorney in this case, and convicted Pinchas of murder, regardless of any possible mitigating circumstances. The fact that God condoned Pinchas’ actions should not be seen as condoning murder, but as a reminder that we are God’s partners on earth. It’s our job to perform acts of tikkun olam, of repairing the world, and making it a better place. May this be one of the lessons we learn from Pinchas.