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Parashat Pinhas 5779

July 25, 2019

Pinhas: Hero or vigilante?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Pinhas
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

It may be strongly argued that within Judaism, there is no room or tolerance for committing murder in God’s name.

We view with distain fanatical groups such as ISIS or Boko Haran killing others for failing to adhere to a specific type of religious practice. Teenage girls have been kidnapped or enslaved for the perceived crime of receiving an education.

Within Judaism, we have witnessed in recent years numerous examples of religious zealotry – including the murder of Muslims in Hebron in 1995, or the stabbings at the 2005 Jerusalem gay pride parade, or the assassination in 1995 of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

All of this has been universally condemned by the modern Jewish world.

So then, how can we embrace the text to be read this Saturday in synagogues throughout the world – named after Pinhas, grandson of Aaron the priest, who at the close of last week’s Torah portion singlehandedly condemns and executes the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite Cozbi who are engaged in sexual behavior in front of the holy Tabernacle.

Is Pinhas a hero for defending God’s honor, or is he to be condemned as a zealot?

More importantly, how can this Torah portion instruct and inspire us today?

In Numbers 25:11-12, God appears pleased with Pinhas’ actions. God tells Moses that Pinhas “has turned back My wrath from the Israelites, by displaying his passion for me. Therefore I grant him My pact of friendship.”

The Talmud notes that had Pinhas asked for permission from the courts, he would have been refused. Still, he proceeded in the name of heaven.

Notes the Talmud, “This is a rare instance of the rule, halakhah ve-ein morin kein, “It is a law that is not taught” (Sanhedrin 82a).

The Jerusalem Talmud, among other commentaries, adopts a different perspective. It states that Moses and the elders wanted to excommunicate Pinhas (Sanhedrin 9:7) or at minimum strip him of his priestly status, but this did not occur.

So as we delve into the commentaries around this week’s Torah portion, we are left with two opposing views. Yet, within a more tolerant, and pluralistic world, can we in 2019 afford to be as tolerant?

Our tradition encourages us to discuss the Torah in the company of a study partner. It is this interactive process which produces a more wise and measured understanding of the Torah.

It is how perhaps, several commentators have made peace with this week’s text, by focusing not as much on Pinhas’ actions, but rather on the aftermath.

It is likely no accident that soon after Pinhas’ murder of Zimri and Cozbi, Joshua is officially named to succeed Moses rather than the hot-headed Pinhas.

As for Pinhas’ fate, God grants the eternal priesthood to him and his descendants – perhaps not as a reward but as an antidote.

Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin (1815–1871) known as the K’tav Sofer noted, “He will have to cure himself of his violent temper if he is to function as a Kohen.”

As the Etz Chaim biblical commentary notes, quoting Reb Hirsch Leib Berlin (1816-1893), acting as a public servant may cure Pinhas of his violent impulses (Page 918). Ultimately, Pinhas will follow in the footsteps of his grandfather Aaron – who Pirkei Avot 1:12 refers to as a rodef shalom – a pursuer of peace.

Indeed, zealotry may have had its role during the Biblical period and was perhaps even applauded by God, but in 2019, during these fractured times, we need to push back against religious isolation, and the vigilantism which Pinhas modeled.

In 2019, we need to incline ourselves towards conciliation and patience. We need to ensure as well that those who are isolated, or on the fringe are brought into the community fold.

It is then, and only then that as an Am Segulah – a treasured people – we can proceed with the sacred task of healing this broken world.

While we as a people value individuality, more importantly, we exist within a nation dedicated to communal justice.

Pinhas skirted the rule of law, and in turn was stripped of his option to succeed Moses. It is a lesson to us all, in how we conduct our lives, and perhaps even the way we chose our leaders.

We must choose justice and process over vigilantism and zealotry.

This world today is plagued with too much violence and single mindedness.

We must therefore consider the example of Pinhas in this week’s Parashah, and consider a better way.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’10) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.