It’s All About Context
What do we make of Pinchas? Not only is he a key character, but the Sedra itself adopts his name. Last week, we saw him take the law into his own hands, killing a Jew and a Medianite woman engaged in immoral activity. This week, we find his actions commended by God, and as an expression of His gratitude, God gave him eternal priesthood. Astonishingly, we see zealotry, intolerance, extremism seemingly praised and rewarded – how can this be? Moreover, how can we relate this to Jewish life today?
Rabbi Dr JJ Schacter from New York’s Yeshiva University gives us an important insight; he explains that the key to understanding why the Torah is rewarding Pinchas’ actions is to consider the circumstances at the time, and to see the context in which these events took place. Pinchas lived during a period in which all Jews were committed to God and Torah at the highest level. Life in the desert was a time of public and apparent miracles, where God openly manifested himself to the Jewish People. They survived on manna from heaven, did not need to wash, and were protected by a great cloud of glory. Their entire existence was about living in the hand of Hashem, totally devoted to Him and His laws.
In such a setting we can see how a simple act of immorality might create such an extreme and irreversible reaction from Pinchas. There, and only there, was his dramatic deed necessary and, ultimately, commendable.
In our world today, however, zealotry and extremism are not what is necessary. On the contrary; we seek calmness, sensitivity, patience, gentleness. ‘Pinchas-like’ behaviour is not what we need; in fact it is wrong and dangerous. In our Jewish World and beyond, we need to spread love and tolerance for each other. We need to look for the good in people and aspire to always want to create peace wherever we go. This is what is appropriate for us in the present.
Furthermore, just as we need to look at the story of Pinchas in context of his time and situation, so too must we remember that everything in our lives needs the right context. We often jump to rash and immediate conclusions about any given situation or event, without real thought – it’s all about perspective.
As we approach the 9th of Av, a time where we remember the calamities that befell The Jewish People throughout our history, it would do us well to work on our relationships and do our best to live a life of peace.
Pinchas was introduced at the end of last weeks Sedra. In a moment of zealotry he took it upon himself to defend the sanctity of the Jewish People and killed Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, and a Midianite princess, Cozbi.
Many Torah commentators are greatly troubled by the story of Pinchas. It seems wrong that we raise Pinchas up to hero-status after he took the law and judgement into his own hands and carried out an irreversible and final punishment? Not only is he himself not punished for these actions, he is rewarded with priesthood.
This episode from the Torah resonates even louder than usual this year as I think of current events in Israel. In the past weeks we are have witnessed so much pain and suffering for the residents of Eretz Yisrael. The country is facing unimaginable trauma in the in the aftermath of Naftali z’l, Eyal z’l and Gilad z’l being taken from us. But I also despair when I think of Muhmad Abu-Khalid was also taken from this world in a vicious act of pure evil.
We still do not know the full story but the emerging facts seem to suggest that young Jewish men took the law into their own hands, decided to pass judgement on another, and carry out the punishment themselves.
Did they learn this from Torah values? The answer is a simple NO.
Rabbi Berel Wein explains that Pinchas and his behaviour become the exception and not the rule in Jewish life and tradition. In his time, the people were horrified and angered by his act of violence so much so that it needed God Himself to bless Pinchas. Therefore Rabbi Wein argues that we should not learn and follow from Pinchas, in fact there is no further act of holy zealotry mentioned in the Torah or approved of by Jewish tradition.
Being hasty to act is rarely a good thing. Sometimes it is a necessity when faced with adversity, but the general rule should always be to act with patience and rational clear thinking. How many situations in our own lives have been handled badly which led to serious consequences? We should study these important lessons from the Torah, to be mindful of our actions and to the best of our abilities not act in a rash or abrupt manor.
If we take this to heart we can improve our relationships, build on and strengthen our own character, and ultimately help bring more peace into the world.