Sunday, July 15, 2012

Parashat Pinchas 5772

Parashat Pinchas has three main parts: the story of Pinchas the zealot who murders Zimri and the Medianite, and is deemed to have done a good thing – how is that possible? Then there a part which is admin: the counting of heads, the census of Bnei Israel - which is the second counting to take place in this book, it is not called Numbers for nothing. And the last part is about the sharing out and distribution of the Land to the Bnei Israel.

Having read the parashah, which did not inspire me, there came to mind the fact that my friend Judith Clearwater, in her book Still dreaming, published a drashah on parashat Pinchas. It seemed worth while checking out what she had found to say about it.

 In her drashah, she discusses a turning point in her way of life: she had decided to pull out of some of the things she was doing, to do less. She had sat down and written letters and felt guiltyabout letting people down, and then felt much better once it was done. And that of course is why the drashah must have come to my mind, because that is exactly where I am at right now.

Some of you may be aware that a new editor is being sought for the Bulletin. In Judith’s case, she was quitting because of ill-health. In my case, my health is good and there has been no actual crisis. Rather, it seemed that the Bulletin had grown and the work seemed to take up more and more energy, so that I wasn’t up to doing much on non-Bulletin days. Editing the Bulletin is an enjoyable experience, and an absorbing one. So absorbing that other matters fell by the wayside. Because of that, the time has arrived to do what those Olympic athletes are doing in the UK at the moment - passing the torch from one to another in the lead-up to the games. So now we are looking for another person to take over, and the Bulletin will change again and become a reflection of a different point of view.

What struck me particularly from the vantage point of  the editor was how active our community is and how gifted our members. At first I thought of these events as unique – a book launch, a play, a study group, a poetry group, a baby group, the Klezmer Rebs, Temple Caterers, the annual seder, our bnei mitzvah, articles written  – all these different ways in which people dedicate themselves to something, and perform in ways which affect the rest of us, improving our lives. It was impressive. And then I realised that these events kept coming – there were always more. New people popped up doing different things. The Board changed. The volunteers varied. There was yet again something newsworthy to report, something to be proud of.

Another lesson was taught me over this period: and that is how much goodness there is around, how much people do for each other in quiet ways. It is a bit ant-like in that the individual effort appears small and hardly noticeable at the individual level, but when you have a whole congregation where giving a helping hand is highly valued and tends to happen naturally, it is awe-inspiring to observe, and a privilege to be in a position to witness it during these five years. Our newspapers focus a great deal on what is wrong and harmful in our society – and that is to some extent necessary. It does tend to create in our minds the feeling that the world out there is evil and many people are bent on harm. From the vantage point of an editor, one can see that this is not the case…
I am sure that someone will be found to continue the newsletter and that someone will give it a new form – it will be fun to watch it evolve.

And now to the parashah: the parashah says simply that Pinchas killed Zimri and his Medianite concubine Cozbi bat Tzur. . And then, very surprisingly,  Adonai granted him peace.

The Talmud gives more background to this: Bnei Israel, and the tribe of Shimon in particular, were seduced by Medianite women who were prostituting themselves. Zimri was the chief of the simeonites. People were upset by this behaviour and did not know what to do. In a misguided effort to assert that all was well, and that this was acceptable behaviour, Zimri took the Medianite princess into his tent as a concubine. And Moses did nothing about it. Torah law does not provide for conventional, court-induced punishment for such an offender. However, a law does exist that gives license for "zealots to smite” those who consort with idolatresses. So Zimri was deserving of death according to the Torah. The sentence is not entrusted to the normal judiciary process – it is up to the zealots. 

The commentaries say that the motives of the zealot who takes unilateral action are all-important. In this case he commits a double murder.

Is he acting out God’s wishes, or is he a violent man pretending to be holy? The true zealot is a selfless individual – do we believe such people exist?   If they do, they must be rare. A commentary by an Israeli academic calls Pinchas a great man, because  Pinchas was utterly taken over by pristine, pure religious intention. A normal person would have personal prejudices and inclinations in this matter and therefore ceases to qualify for zealotry. This is confusing. Maybe a zealot performs this murder without anger, calmly, because it needs to be done? No hate, no rage. This is a different act from that performed by suicide bombers who kill themselves in the process, who are encouraged to kill for a reward…

Judaism abhors murder; Judaism abhors killing. The Israeli Courts of law do not order the killing of a man proven to be guilty of murder , except in very rare circumstances. The sage Maimonides said that it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent one to death. Anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof until we would be convicting on a mere whim.

The threshold to proving that someone has committed a murder is very high, there have to have been witnesses who saw the person do it, who heard him say that he was going to do it. So Jewish courts of law only rarely condemn a person to death – in my lifetime it happened as most of you know in Eichmann‘s case. Eichmann was found to be one of the main architects of the Holocaust, responsible for millions of deaths.
This law about smiting the infidels, belongs to a special category, the category of laws that are not taught. These are laws we are “not instructed to perform”. Many laws instruct us what not to perform, but here it is a  law we are not instructed to perform.

If Pinchas had asked for permission to kill Zimri, no one would have granted it. He was allowed to do it, but he had to give himself that permission, he had to break the law against murder all by himself. “The action  is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven. Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act which normally causes impurity transformed to an act which sanctifies.”

G-d said: he  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. By killing the two, Pinchas stopped a plague that had begun to rage as the result of G-d's wrath against His people. The plague was a plague of immorality.

And G-d said:  "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”

Just as a man owes gratitude and favor to someone who did him a favor, so here G-d expressed to Pinchas His feelings of peace. (Rashi) G-d says (Torah):”It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel." The word kehunah means priesthood.

Pinchas had not been anointed as a priest prior to this event. He belonged to the right tribe, as he was Aaron’s grandson. But until that moment, only the older generations had been anointed. Pinchas was made a priest at the moment when he killed Cozbi, because he was a zealot who killed two people for the sake of G-d.

This is very difficult to take on board, and despite working on it and reading about it, I still don’t understand it. What Pinchas did came from a place of wisdom most of us do not know and may never attain. After studying this, it seemed best to say, I don’t understand, and to keep in mind the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” plain and simple. The commandments exist because transgression comes easily to us. We read about murders in the newspaper at almost any time. If it were not so easy to kill, the commandment would not be relevant. This is the law which is taught to us.