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Parashat Pinhas 5783

Difficult Stories in the Torah: Only the Beginning of a Conversation

July 6, 2023
by Rabbi Steven Altarescu ('14)

The way we respond to very difficult stories in the Torah can teach us a lot about the complexities of being human. Two common reactions to the stories that shock us, maybe even disgust us, might be to reject the whole Torah and its jealous and angry God or to simply not pay attention to the parts of the Torah we don’t like and only learn from its ethical teachings and uplifting stories.

I would like to suggest a third approach, one that begins with seeing the Torah as the beginning of a conversation and not as the end of one. This means not only acknowledging the compassionate and loving side of being human but our more shadowy characteristics as well, such as the desire to murder, rid ourselves of people who we see as harmful to us, and obsessive sexual desires. Just as these are all in the Torah as well as inside each of us, I believe the way we choose to understand these stories and God is a reflection of our psychological makeup. These shadowy forces have not, and will not, go away, as is evidenced in the physical, verbal and sexual violence that persists in our world. The Torah models our various responses.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion the Israelite men are described as whoring with Midianite women as part of a religious ritual to the a fertility god known as Ba-al:

God is burning with anger over this and tells Moses to impale the leaders in order to calm the wrath of God. Moses goes even further instructing his lieutenants to kill all those people who have taken part in this sexual fertility ritual. Pinhas, Aaron’s grandson, sees an Israelite man and a Midianite woman fornicating in the middle of the Israelite camp and takes his spear and thrusts it through the two of them.

Parashat Pinhas begins with God’s response to Pinhas’ act of violence:

“Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his zeal for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My zeal. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My covenant of peace.'”        (Numbers 25:11-12)

God has already killed 24,000 Israelites as punishment for their sexual acts with Midianite women and only stops when Pinhas kills a single Israelite and a single Midianite. I imagine God as an out of control angry parent who sees their child as taking on adult violent traits and is shocked. God could have recognized the warrior quality that Pinhas displayed and made him a military leader but instead gives him “My covenant of peace.”

This response to a great act of violence reminds us of God offering a covenant with humankind after the genocide of the flood

 “I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy he earth.” (Genesis 9:11)

God’s anger followed by offering a covenant of peace and non-violence has to trouble us. I can only think of the image of an abusive spouse or parent who regrets the effects of their actions and promises to not be violent anymore. It seems to me that God has an anger management problem and seeks humans as a partner to control these violent tendencies. There are several examples of people responding to God’s anger by arguing against violence.   Abraham responds to God wanting to wipe out all the people of Sodom and Gemorrah saying:

 “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25)

 Another example is when the Israelites build a golden calf and God says to Moses:

  “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, comfort Me, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9)

Moses, though angry himself, responded to God and said:

“Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt.”  (Exodus 32:11)

The Torah thus presents two ways of responding when God is angry: either to allow this anger to propel one to take matters into their own hands and act violently, or to quell one’s desire for vengeance and appeal to the ethic of just and righteous action.

The haftarah chosen by the rabbis for this week’s Torah portion presents another figure, Elijah, who, like Pinhas, is consumed with zeal. The haftarah begins right after Elijah had committed a violent act in his zeal for God:

“Then Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal, let not a single one of them get away.’ They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there.”

(1 Kings 18:39)

Elijah is on the run fleeing from those who want retribution for his actions. As Elijah hides in a cave in the mountain, thunder, lightning, whirlwind, and fire pass before him. The entire mountain shakes with the force of a mighty earthquake. But, God is curiously absent from any of these violent manifestations of nature’s power. Then Elijah hears a kol demama dakka, a still small voice, a sound just slightly more than silence. Elijah, who has always understood God to be manifest in displays of power and dominance, is stunned to realize that God is absent from the fire, from the whirlwind, from the explosions and the death. God is found in the quiet, soft voice that echoes in the heart.

According to midrash, Pinhas and Elijah are one and the same person. Indeed the language of their passion is very similar.  Both are described as being zealous and passionate for God using the same Hebrew root (kuf – nun – aleph)

בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־-קִנְאָתִ֖י    “Pinhas… has turned back My wrath by displaying among them his zeal for Me.” (Numbers 25:11)

וַיֹּ֩אמֶר֩ קַנֹּ֨א קִנֵּ֜אתִי   “I am moved by zeal for God.”   (1 Kings 19:14)

The response of God to Pinhas and Elijah’s zealous and violent actions is to take power away from them. In the case of Pinhas, it is to give him a “covenant of peace” and install him in the priesthood where he will have to offer the people atonement and blessings of peace and well being rather than retribution. In the case of Elijah, God teaches that the sacred is not to be found in violent thunder and whirlwinds but in stillness and gentleness.

Pinhas and Elijah are not given leadership roles after their acts of zealousness. While their moment of vengeance for God may seem justified, it is not a model for leadership or moral living. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments:

“Pinhas gave his name to the parsha in which Moses asks God to appoint a successor. R. Menahem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotzk, asked why Pinhas, hero of the hour, was not appointed instead of Joshua. His answer was that a zealot cannot be a leader. That requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process.”

An older and maybe very tired Moses does not stop to question whether God’s command was just and righteous, nor did Pinhas. In this week’s Torah portion Moses is told that he will soon die and not lead the people into The Promised Land. Joshua and not Pinhas is given the role of the new leader. When the people were fearful to enter into The Promised Land, Joshua did not react with anger as God and Moses did, but stayed patient and reasonable while speaking to people’s hopes rather than their fears. Joshua is the model the Torah offers for living in a world full of violence, impulsiveness and radicalism by keeping his patience and being guided by justice and righteousness.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Steven Altarescu (AJR 2014) served as co-rabbi with his wife Rabbi Laurie Levy (AJR 2015) at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley from 2014- 2020. He is a Board Certified Chaplain who has worked at Westchester Medical Center and Northern Westchester Hospital. He is developing his meditation practice and studying painting and mixed media art at the Art Students League and chasing after his four young granddaughters.