Pinchas: A broken peace

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.'” (B’midbar 25:10-13)

You come, you say, on God’s behalf:
your eyes ablaze with ardor,
your hand raised up to kill;
with spear (or knife or gun or bomb)
to extirpate the infidel;
to mete out justice to the faithless
and purge all evil from the world.
You think you know this is God’s will. But

the mandate that you execute
is perilously flawed
and peace will never blossom
upon a broken stem.

Last week’s parasha ends as the Israelites are lured into debauchery and idolatry and God becomes incensed. He instructs Moses to kill (impale) the ringleaders. Then an Israelite tribesman takes a Midianite woman into the chamber near the Sanctuary to engage in sexual relations with her, and Pinchas, the priestly grandson of Aaron, follows them in and impales both on a spear. The Torah is very clear: Pinchas has averted a worse disaster and the plague that has already claimed twenty four thousand people, is checked. This week’s parasha opens as God tells Moses “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned My anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for My honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making My covenant of peace with him.” (B’midbar 25:11 – 12)
So it seems that God approves Pinchas’s action and bestows a covenant of peace for him and for his descendants for all time. However the scribing of the text hints that Pinchas’s peace is imperfect. The Hebrew letter vav is comprised of a long vertical stem and a very short horizontal line at the top. However, in the Sefer Torah (the scroll), in the specific word shalom referring to the (covenant of) peace with which God endows Pinchas in this episode, the vertical stem of the letter vav has a break in it, the sort of defect which would normally render a Sefer Torah invalid.
In a commentary on parashat Pinchas,, Rabbi Arnold Eisen wonders what we are supposed to think about Pinchas and his action. He says there are many questions that this episode raises, of which three are particularly prominent for him:
“1. There seems something utterly primitive about the notion of an out-of-control God, grateful to Pinehas — as He was to Moses after the Israelites built and worshipped a golden calf — for finding a means to assuage His anger and stave off a national disaster that might have ended the Jewish story once and for all.
“2. Pinehas’s “passion” (or “zealotry”) is explicitly related to God’s in verse 10: “bekan’o et kin’ati.” The Torah seems to be saying that one can imitate God not only through acts of justice and mercy, creation and redemption, but in hot anger, violence, and slaughter. This is not the Judaism I have been taught, but there it is — or seems to be — in black and white.
“3. The entire passage reeks of violence. Moses has commanded killing. God destroys many thousands through plague. Immediately after the story about Pinehas, we are told that (v. 16) “the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Assail the Midianites’ ” — the tribe to which Moses’s wife and father-in-law belong — ” ‘and defeat them, for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you [in the] affair of Peor.’ ” Pinehas is caught up in this violence. He is not an instigator or an outlier, but an exemplar.”
Rabbi Eisen continues, “Of all the problems the Torah places before a contemporary reader committed to walking in its path, following its guidance, and trying to ensure that “all its ways are pleasantness, and all its paths are peace,” these incidents at the heart of the book of Numbers seem to be among the very hardest.” He notes that the Torah moves on very fast with other subjects, but he relates that he cannot turn away quite so quickly. “I am, I confess, both riveted and repelled by the image of his spear. My fealty to Torah requires me to face up to its challenges; my gratitude to Torah stems in part from what I learn from such challenges. That is the case here. I want to understand what I can learn from the very difficult passage, in which God apparently blesses Pinehas for resorting to vigilante justice.” As Rabbi Eisen acknowledges, he is far from the first Jew to question the text and cites the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS (which he thinks maybe exaggerates the case somewhat) in saying “most postbiblical commentators . . . tend to be uncomfortable with [his] zealous vigilantism” (918), but concedes that it is true that “the Talmud goes out of its way to show that Pinehas’s deed fulfilled rather than violated the law. If one “cohabits with a heathen, he is punished by zealots.” No trial is needed. Pinehas knew that law and complied. Taking the matter one step further, “R. Hisda said: If the zealot comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so . . . What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Pinehas slain him, Pinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Pinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Pinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life]. (Sanhedrin 81b-82a)
So Rabbi Eisen comments “The Rabbis knew that the law is not helped when people take it into their own hands. God would not, in their view, have rewarded lawless behavior. We have seen again in recent days what follows when vigilantes engage in revenge killings of innocents. Violence can quickly spiral out of control.” (Rabbi Eisen wrote this in 2014.)
Rabbi Eisen adds that Hasidic commentators bring a connection between our nature and God’s, and they suggest that Pinchas was able somehow to bridge between the Divine and the human, and was thus rewarded with a covenant of shelemut or wholeness. But, he continues, this idea somewhat idealizes Pinchas and his zealotry. “We would bridle, I think, if someone did the same for Crusaders or jihadists. But there is sadly something true to experience in the linkage of faith to fanaticism, and of loyalty to God to righteous anger at acts of perceived betrayal. The Torah frequently depicts God too as subject to such anger. God, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously pointed out, is the very opposite of an “unmoved Mover,” Aristotle’s description of God. The biblical God cares immensely about us, practices mercy, and renders judgment. God’s nature, as it were, makes God unable to abide among Israelites who practice idolatry.” Rabbi Eisen notes, though, that being human, we get angry at times, yet our anger rarely brings about a good outcome. “Being passionate in the service of God carries with it the danger that one will find good reasons for indulging in fanaticism and even committing violence in God’s name. We know this all too well from recent headlines. And because humans are prone to violence, further violence is often required in order to stop violence, or stave off worse violence. As the Rabbis taught, the rigor of law is essential to the practice of mercy. Pinehas may well have prevented national disaster by taking the step he did. The Israelite mob, unchastened by the disaster of Korah’s rebellion, may have been on the verge of rampage. The threat to the people’s well-being, if so, was not divine plague but human anarchy.”

In another commentary on the parasha, also from 2014,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz also addresses the enigma of why Pinchas’s vigilante-style act was rewarded with the divine covenant of peace. He cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch:
“Pinhas asserted My Rights and made them respected among the people, and thereby saved the whole nation from destruction into which they would irrevocably have fallen had I been forced to assert My Rights Myself. If a challenge to God finds no champion among a circle of human beings and the consciousness of the Rights which God has on them has disappeared from this circle, then they have lost God, and thereby their own future existence. And this must be the case especially in the Jewish circle of human beings, Israel, whose whole human historical existence rests on the word “li,” “[they belong] to me,” with which God has called Israel “His possession” and thereby dedicated every member of it to be “His” in every phase of its existence, and for all eternity makes this Right of Possession valid. Israel is either “God’s” or it ceases to exist. One such single man, Pinhas, and one such single manly deed become the savior of the entire nation.” (Commentary on Numbers, 432)
Rabbi Berkowitz endorses Rabbi Hirsch for emphasizing the measure of Pinchas’s loyalty to and sympathy for God, which lend a little more clarity and understanding regarding his grave act. He also acknowledges the value of Rabbi Hirsch’s insistence that we need to be in a partnership with God. Rabbi Berkowitz says, “…it is not enough for humans to sense the divine emotion, but they must also act in constructive ways. There must be a true striving to become a divine people. Given these reflections, the modern reader succeeds in making some sense of Pinehas’s fundamentalism.” Yet he contends that the narrative remains problematic, “An act of unbridled religious fundamentalism not only carries the day, but seems to be rewarded.” But he continues, ” Then again, perhaps the unique reward serves as a remedy: a “covenant of peace” must temper Pinehas’s zealousness, and “an everlasting priesthood” devoted to the disciplined service of God must be the channel through which Pinehas and his descendants distill their energies. Parashat Pinehas forces us to pause and reflect on the role of religious passion and its destructive as well as constructive consequences.”

In a further commentary from 2012,, Rabbi Marc Wolf notes that commentators have wondered why difficult episode of Pinchas is split between the two successive parashot read last week and this. He suggests one possible reason: “…in splitting the story, we are afforded some distance from the violence, so that when we read God’s gracious response and blessing of Pinhas and his descendants, it does not sit in as stark a contrast with the bloody beginning of the narrative.”
Rabbi Wolf, too, is uncomfortable with the seeming endorsement in the text of Pinchas’s brutal act, and furthermore wonders how to understand the reward of the “brit shalom – the covenant of peace.”
He cites the assortment of suggestions put forward in the Etz Hayim commentary, ranging from God’s promise of protection from retaliation by the clan of the Israelite Pinchas killed, to the assertion in Midrash Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah that through this brit shalom Pinchas was granted immortality.
However, Rabbi Wolf is most taken with the commentary of the Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovski, who he says, “helps me to walk the line between my discomfort with the action in question and the reward that is granted”. He notes that the Slonimer focuses here on understanding the “shalom” component in the brit shalom. He relates that the Slonimer opens by comparing the aftermath of the current incident at Ba’al Peor, in which Pinchas saved the entire people (24,000 died in the plague) whereas after the Golden Calf episode 3,000 died. So this was an extremely serious transgression.
Rabbi Wolf says, “The Slonimer reads incredible significance into shalom — beginning by stating with biblical proof texts that peace is the mission of the world, and the point of the entire Torah. If we take a short step back with him, we find that shalom surfaces as a fundamental idea in Judaism. The ‘Amidah that we recite three times daily ends with shalom; the priestly blessing ends with shalom. The Slonimer goes so far as to say that all of creation, everything physical and spiritual, hinges on this concept of shalom that God gave as a gift to Pinhas. But for the Slonimer, shalom is much deeper than the existence of peace or the absence of conflict.”*
He continues that the Slonimer connects peace (SHaLoM) with wholeness (SHeLeiMut), and he “sees all of humanity in a struggle for wholeness. We can all be doing everything we should in life, fulfilling our personal mission, and doing good in the world, but there can still be an internal struggle with sh’leimut…what the Slonimer recognized was that an individual can be doing what is right and good in the eyes of God, but still not be achieving wholeness. Our outward actions can, and often do, tell a very different story from our internal dialogue. The personal physical, emotional, and intellectual struggles that we negotiate on a daily basis frequently stay buried deep within ourselves. To achieve wholeness, true sh’leimut, we must find a way to make peace with our internal drives.”
Rabbi Wolf turns back to the parasha, saying we can perhaps see God’s covenant of peace a little differently, and yet with our modern eyes, it is still hard to read of violence being approved in the name of religious belief. But, he says, after the “intermission” between the two parashot, we see the outcome. God has understood that a brit shalom is needed because because the violence, though mandated, has undermined the unity among the people. Rabbi Wolf suggests “It is not only in the eyes of God that Pinhas needs shalom. It is among the rest of the Children of Israel, and within himself. We do not hear how his action affected his later life and relationships; we can only hope that he did find some means to achieve sh’leimut.”
He concludes, “Rabbinic Judaism could not let the story of Pinhas stand as an example for religious fervor. In a wonderful piece of Talmud from Sanhedrin, when his fanaticism comes face to face with rabbinic courts, the Rabbis acknowledge the immorality, but declare, “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (82a).
“This kind of fanaticism and violence are overwhelmingly the dominant voices much of the world hears in the name of religion. However, we are inheritors of a tradition that understands that Judaism is a voice of moderation, and that religion guides us to be better humans, working to fulfill God’s will and to respect life. We walk in the footsteps of the Rabbis who understood the damage done by extremism. We practice a Judaism that seeks sh’leimut in our relationship not only with God, but with each other and within ourselves.”

*The Slonimer authored a book called Netivot Shalom (Pathways of Peace).


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