Our Zealot

Thoughts on the problematic Parshat Pinchas

When our rabbi first approached me to deliver a d’var Torah, he offered me the choice of either last week’s Parshat Balak, so rich and weird with soothsayers, talking donkeys, curses, celestial beings, or…Parshat Pinchas. I told him I wanted to re-read the parshiyot (weekly portions) before making my decision.

I could tell Rabbi was a little surprised when I told him that I wanted to try my hand at Parshat Pinchas. When he asked me about my choice, I asked him whether there has been much of commentary that addresses why Pinchas’s rather brief story is broken up into two separate parshiyot, the very end of Balak and the very beginning of today’s reading.

Rabbi answered: “Yes.”

And then I asked whether, within our tradition, Pinchas is considered to be a problematical figure.

Rabbi answered: “Yes.” With that, I was off and running.

Before exploring Parshat Pinchas, let’s take a moment to consider how we met Pinchas in last week’s Torah portion, and try to fix where he emerges within the narrative of Sefer BaMidbar. I’ve always found it misleading that Sefer BaMidmar has been translated into English as the Book of Numbers, rather than what it should more properly be called: “In the Wilderness.” “Numbers” suggests orderliness, but in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively, is where the Hebrews find themselves throughout BaMidbar. In the parshiyot leading up to Pinchas, they careen from one crisis to another:

· In Be’Halotecha, it’s the kvetching about the manna

· In Shelach Lecha, it’s the spurious report of spies and the sentence by God to wander the desert until the generation that left Egypt dies out

· In Korach, it’s the rebellion of Korach

· In Chukat, it’s the Waters of Meribah

· In Balak, it’s the curse of Balaam

This is a narrative marked by chaos, culminating in the bizarre Parshat Balak. The story of Balaam that it recounts is considered by Biblical scholars to be an independent composition, an outlier perhaps not even authored by the scribal circle associated with the rest of BaMidbar. This episode could have been presented as a self-contained story, but as it closes, we get what seems to be a tacked-on scene concerning the apostasy of Baal-Peor and its aftermath; actually, it resumes the narrative interrupted at the end of Parshat Chukat.

This is the scene that closes Parshat Balak — Israelite men have taken up with Midianite women, worshiping their gods and engaging in all manner of licentiousness. Incensed, God sends down a plague and orders Moses to impale all the chiefs of the people. Moses, however, instructs the judges to kill only those who participated, but before anyone can act, an Israelite man brings his Midianite paramour in front of the Tent of Meeting and sins in public view, causing general weeping and despair. At that, Pinchas, son of Eleazar and grandson son of Aaron the priest, grabs a spear and with zeal runs it through the abdomens of the sinning couple, killing them. The plague abates.

This is rough stuff. How to justify it? Rashi’s take is as follows (from the Stone Chumash): ‘And they were weeping. They were at a loss. Moses forgot that the law regarding one who publicly violates the Torah’s prohibition against cohabiting with a gentile is “a zealous one may slay him.” Providence caused Moses to forget so that Pinchas could act and be worthy of the blessing God gave him in verse 12.’ That is to say the fatherhood of the priestly line. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, recognizes that perhaps Moses and the elders are weeping in hopes of God’s compassion.

I think the latter explanation is the more plausible — Moses, for example, had a firsthand experience of killing a man in a zealous rage (remember that Egyptian back in Exodus 2:12?) and may have recognized the problems inherent in that approach. Further, his experience as a leader was marked by his petitioning of God to ease His wrath against His people, Israel, and perhaps Moses wanted to plead on their behalf again. But just as against stupidity, God Himself labors in vain, against zealotry, even the greatest leaders of men struggle.

Who is Pinchas? His name translates approximately as “bronze colored one,” or “dark one.” He is the grandson of Aaron and the son of Eleazar, who took as wife a daughter of Yitro, who, although also the father-in-law of Moses, was an idolater and priest of Midian. Pinchas is identified as the product of that union in Sefer Shemot (6:23). According to midrashic explication, this mongrelized lineage causes the Children of Israel to chastise Pinchas for killing the couple at the Tent of Meeting, the logic being that he, as grandson of an idolater who supposedly mistreated animals, was unworthy of performing the sacred deed. A Freudian might analyze his murderous act — piercing an Israelite man like his father and Midianite woman like his mother through their lower bodies as they sin — as the symbolic annihilation of his own parents, and thus a manifestation his own desire for self-abnegation.

It is fair to say, however, that both the Children of Israel on the scene and readers of the Torah down through the ages would be within their rights to abhor the sheer brutality of Pinchas’s action. The abject unpalatability of Pinchas’s deed provides one reason that his connection to Aaron is cited repeatedly, at least according to Rashi. Nevertheless, in today’s parsha God Himself rewards Pinchas’s zeal in expiating the sins of the people by proclaiming that Pinchas and his descendants will be the priests of Israel for all time. Eventually, Pinchas becomes the third kohen gadol, the high priest of Israel.

What is also quite interesting is the association in midrash of Pinchas with the prophet Elijah. According to the view of the sages in Baba Metzia 114, Pinchas and Elijah are identical. When Pinchas is last mentioned in the Book of Joshua and in Chronicles, there is no record of his death, which has allowed some to conflate him with Elijah, who does not die but is borne away in a chariot of fire.

Pinchas himself is a cipher. He says literally nothing to announce his actions or justify his motivations. I’ve always found it valuable to examine the first and last words of each biblical figure, as entrances and exits are inevitably revealing about their inner lives. Pinchas, however, is silent. We finally do, in a way, hear the voice of Pinchas when he reappears in the Book of Joshua…we will get to that.

While Pinchas himself is a dubious character, Parshat Pinchas is one of the most remarkable and consequential parshiyot of the Torah. After the flux and chaos that marked the earlier sections of BaMidbar, Parshat Pinchas establishes the order that the Hebrews will take with them as they enter the Land of Israel. Consider what it establishes:

· We find out, through God’s reward of Pinchas, that the priesthood will be hereditary

· A new census of the tribes realigns the social order

· In chapter 26, verse 65, we find out that God considers punishment of the generation who left Egypt to be complete — all but Caleb and Joshua are dead

· Moses appoints Joshua as his successor, indicating that leadership will not (for the time being) be hereditary

· The anecdote about the daughters of Zelophehad establishes a groundwork for property rights in the Land of Israel

· And finally, the schedule of festivals orders time itself — we don’t meaninglessly pass through this world adrift on endless seasonal cycles, but rather we move purposefully from one milestone to the next in order to worship our God.

And with all this consequential ordering of space and time, what is this week’s haftarah (supplemental reading from Prophets) about? Elijah, the zealot’s zealot. Certainly, the rabbis who determined the schedule of haftarot in the early Christian era, could have found passages in Ne’viim to reflect the restoration of order taking place in Parshat Pinchas. But instead, they made a connection to Elijah, which signals that they wanted us, going forward, to consider the nature of zealotry, just as by breaking off the Pinchas episode into two parshyot — one with Pinchas’s deed, the next with his reward — also invites us to reflect on fanatic devotion.

I think that the midrashic connection between Elijah and Pinchas is the first of three messages about the Zealot — the Zealot is always with us, and is always, more or less, a manifestation of the same type of person.

The second message comes with Pinchas’s reappearance in Parshat Mattot, which we’ll be reading next week. In it, God commands Moses to “avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” Moses, contra God’s command to him, delegates the job of leading the army to tribal commanders, and to Pinchas, who sallies forth with the army “equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.” According to midrash (Numbers Rabba), Pinchas was assigned this role so that he could finish the sacred task that began when he smote the Midianite woman in the affair of Baal-Peor.

The Torah does establish a key role for the priesthood in battle, specifically in the Book of Deuteronomy (20:2–4). Jewish armies were led out to war by a special kohen called the mashuach milchamah (the one anointed for war), who was designated for this task; but his job is not to fight, but rather to encourage the soldiers to battle bravely, telling them that G‑d was surely on their side. This kohen also provides a soldier with certain exemptions for battle — if he is betrothed but not married, has planted an orchard, or is fearful enough to hamper his comrades.

This is not how Pinchas appears in the battle described in Mattot, which — if not quite a fiasco — is a bloody, rapine mess in which God’s wishes are not completely fulfilled, infuriating Moses. You can read all the gory details next week, but for our purposes, let’s look again at the image of Pinchas at the front lines. He’s shaking the holy vessels, he’s blowing trumpets, he is out to finish the job he started in slaying the evildoers — he is whipped up and out for blood.

This is not the image befitting a kohen gadol, or a mashuach milchamah . For one, kohanim are prohibited from being in contact with human corpses — Pinchas rides out with the warriors into battle to, as Numbers Rabba puts it, to finish the sacred task he began at Baal-Peor. But also keep in mind also that a kohen’s role, generally speaking, was a blood-soaked avocation — in the time of the Temple, kohanim performed sacrifices daily.

When we first encounter Pinchas, he uses a spear to pierce an Israelite apostate and a Midianite Baal worshiper engaged in sexual congress through their abdomens, an image that would have resonated in a meaningful way with the Torah’s initial audience — Iron Age people living amidst cultures whose cultic practices include human sacrifice. And while what I’m alluding to might seem to some of you as a fervid interpretation of Pinchas’s actions at Baal-Peor, let me share another citation from Numbers Rabbah: ‘Reading the words of Numbers 25:13 that Phinehas “made atonement for the children of Israel,” a midrash taught that although he did not strictly offer a sacrifice to justify the expression “atonement,” his shedding the blood of the wicked was as though he had offered a sacrifice.”’

This is unpleasant stuff, and you can see why rabbis might have decided to separate Pinchas’s act and Pinchas’s reward into two separate parshiyot. But, along with Moses sending Pinchas to war at the head of an army, it also suggests what I believe is the Torah’s second message about the Zealot, which is this — sometimes the Zealot is useful. In other words, he may be a zealot, but he’s our zealot.

And what’s the problem with that, precisely? Well, the Torah has an answer for that, too, and in my view that is the third important lesson about the zealot it has to impart.

We last encounter Pinchas in Joshua, Chapter 22, which takes place after the Hebrews have taken possession of the Land of Israel. Hearing that the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who reside east of the Jordan River, have erected a great and conspicuous altar, the Israelites living to the west of the Jordan assemble for war against their brethren over this presumed apostasy against God. But before they act, however, they send a reconnaissance party to investigate, one that is composed of ten tribal chiefs and led by Pinchas, son of Eleazar. When it arrives in Gilead, for the first time, we hear the voice of Pinchas — and here the Tanach, in all of its brilliant subtlety, provides its third and last essential insight into the nature of the Zealot:

15They came to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, in the land of Gilead, and they said to them, 16“Thus says the whole congregation of the Lord, ‘What is this treachery that you have committed against the God of Israel in turning away today from following the Lord, by building yourselves an altar today in rebellion against the Lord? 17Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which even yet we have not cleansed ourselves, and for which a plague came upon the congregation of the Lord, 18that you must turn away today from following the Lord!

It continues:

Do not rebel against the Lord, or rebel against us by building yourselves an altar other than the altar of the Lord our God. 20 Did not Achan son of Zerah break faith in the matter of the devoted things, and wrath fell upon all the congregation of Israel? And he did not perish alone for his iniquity!

In other words — “Nice altar you got here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.” We hear the voice of the Zealot here very clearly. “The WHOLE of community of the LORD!” “Treachery you HAVE committed this day.” And then a reference to what can only be described as the particular obsession of Pinchas. “17Have we not had enough of the sin at Peor from which EVEN YET we have not cleansed ourselves.” Are these iniquities never over? In the mind of Pinchas, human iniquity is not, and never will be, over or forgiven. The incident at Baal-Peor is the high water mark of his existence, and the subsequent battle to wipe out the Midianites a glory which he hopes to relive. He’s a thug with blood on his hands and mean things on his mind.

And here is the subtle genius of our Tanach. It doesn’t relate that Pinchas said these words, but that “they” — the whole reconnaissance party — speaks them. Pinchas has infected their minds with his own hatred and zealotry, to the point that Israelites are ready to go to war with their fellow Israelites before they even ask — “Hey dudes, what’s up with the altar?” (The east bank Israelites, by the way, are blameless.)

And that is the third lesson the story Pinchas conveys: “The Zealot may be useful when doing our bidding, but the danger is that the rest of us might, with zeal, soon start doing theirs.”

When I was a kid, I was entranced by the BBC documentary Civilization — I still have Kenneth Clark’s companion book in my library, and periodically dip into it, always with great pleasure. One of the chapters is titled, “The Smile of Reason,” and features a photo of a bust of Voltaire sculpted by Houdon that perfect embodies that conception of civilization — the great writer’s visage conveys engagement, bemusement, serenity, and resolve.

Today, whenever I engage with forums of public discourse — be it through legacy media and social media, public forums and more intimate discussions among friends, family, and even people in my community who I know possess overarchingly similar concerns to my own — I encounter the other kind the face, the one that doesn’t have its own chapter in Kenneth Clark’s Civilization. Narrowed eyes flashing suspicion and anger. Lips curling into sneers. Faces reddened with rage. Gaping mouths unleashing bitter invective. No civility. No smiles.

Most of these angry people — certainly the ones I know — are not zealots. But, like our ancestors in the wilderness, we have been living through a chaotic time, getting on two decades marked by war, terrorism, economic uncertainty, and fear of external and internal enemies, both real and imagined. In this moment in history, when longstanding political and social norms have seemingly been upended, we are all easy prey for the true zealots, who are with us always. These zealots seem aligned with our interests as they goad us to join battle against our brethren. They urge us to impugn others’ motives without first trying to understand them. And in taking the bait, in raging against one another, we serve the purpose of today’s zealots — those who wish to tear down institutions and eviscerate social bonds that have long sustained both our Jewish community and the broader culture of which we are a part.

I think we all need to tread carefully in this kind of environment, not lose sight that there are no zealots who are zealous for the cause of reasonableness. And what, in the end, makes the zealot so problematical?

For that, I turned to another great font of wisdom — Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.

Normal, but more so.