My heart has been heavy this past week reading the news coming out of the Middle East.
Beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli yeshiva students, followed by the horrendous revenge killing of an even younger Palestinian boy, we are witnessing a deepening round of violence. As rockets land in Israel and airstrikes hit Gaza, a cease-fire is broken and we have spiraled into another round of violence. Extremism and violence has once again won the day.
While there are moments of hope and light-the families of the IsraeIi and Palestinian youths have reached out to eachother and both publically denounced the violence and hatred which led to the death of their children-that is overshadowed by the darkness. I grieve for the loss of life, the fear which grips all who live there and the zealotry that has led to this result.
I chose that last term purposefully because it brings to mind this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. We are reading this week in our Torah reading cycle in the book of Numbers. Our portion actually picks up in the middle of a story begun last week: The Israelites while wandering in the desert began to associate with (and have sexual relations with) the Moabites. This then led the Israelites adopting the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed at this sinful behavior, and orders Moses to carry out a punishment.
Just then an Israelite takes a Midianite woman and has sex with her in the Tent of Meeting, in the sacred central gathering space. Pinchas, a priest, takes a spear, goes in after them and kills them both by impaling them with the spear through both of their torsos. With that act a plague, which we can assume was a punishment for the previous idolatrous behavior, ends. And at that, last week’s portion Balak ends.
It is a bit of a cliffhanger. While we know the plague ends, what of Pinchas? Is there any more fallout from his act? This week’s portion opens with God offering Pinchas a blessing, recognizing that it was Pinchas’ action which ended the punishment. God offers Pinchas and his descendants a place in the priesthood and a brit shalom, a pact of peace. The Torah appears to condone his act.
The term zealot because that is the term usually invoked to describe Pinchas and his act. Pinchas was a zealot, who in his passion and zeal kills two people in the name of God. Is Pinchas rewarded for his act of zealotry? Is the Torah telling us that violence in the name of God is a good thing?
Its not quite clear. What is a brit shalom? What is a “pact” or “covenant” of shalom? One way of understanding this-an as some translations bear out-is God is making a special relationship with Pinchas, a “pact of friendship” in which, presumably, God has Pinchas’ back since Pinchas had God’s.
But why would God offer a pact of shalom? Maybe this is not so much a reward for Pinchas’ behavior as a check on it.
A colleague of mine from the CLAL Rabbis Without Borders program, Rav Hanan Schlesinger, writes,
Rabbi Naftalie Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known by the acronym Netziv, answers by way of a deep psychological insight. Violence, even when justified, leaves an ugly scar on the soul. The seeds of callous disregard for the preciousness of human life are implanted by every act of aggression, not matter what the context. A little bit of one’s humanity is lost.
God’s ‘covenant of peace’ is an antidote to the pernicious effects of Pinchas’s zealotry. It is a promise that he will be spared the almost inevitable lot of all perpetrators of violence. The Netziv reminds us that violence of all types eats away at us from within, and a counterweight must be quickly provided to prevent the damage from spreading. It is true for the individual and it is true for the collective.
Another way of looking at this is that blessing one who demonstrated anger and violence with “peace” can be understood as disapproval-Pinchas needs more shalom in his temperament for his natural inclination is to act violently. Pinchas in his extremism demonstrated the opposite of shalom, so God blesses him with it.
A hint at this meaning is found in the text itself. Based on an early medieval tradition, in the Torah scroll, the vav in the word shalom is written broken:
Here too is a criticism of Pinchas. As one Torah scribe put it, the authors of the scroll “must have been shocked by the violence of Pinchas’ action as they made his blessing only partial through the broken vav which explains that true peace cannot be brought about through violence and that the two concepts are incompatible.” (Thanks to Toby Shulruff for this cite.) Or maybe another way to put it is to say that Pinchas, through his act of violence, is broken or scarred.
Peace brought by violence is broken. Zealous behavior leaves physical and emotional scars. Revenge is not the way. Acts of zealotry is driving this conflict. Acts of compassion and control can hopefully end it.
This upcoming week, on Tuesday, is the 17th of Tammuz. In our tradition it is a fast day, a day of mourning, remembering the time the Babylonians breached the wall of Jerusalem during their conquest in the 6th century BCE. The day ushers in a period known as “The Three Weeks” leading up to Tisha B’Av-the Ninth of Av-a day of mourning to commemorate the destruction of the ancient Temple.
The 17th of Tammuz is a minor fast day, both in the technical sense of being a sunrise to sundown fast (as opposed to a 24 hour fast like Yom Kippur), but also in the sense that it is not widely observed outside of traditional circles. Maybe this is the year to make an exception.
Noting that we are also in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a month marked by day-long fasting, Rabbi Schlesinger (an Orthodox rabbi) is part of an effort to make this Tuesday a joint day of fasting-for peace and non-violence. Rabbi Arthur Waskowalso notes such a project. By using the fast day to focus our spiritual energy in this way, then perhaps it can be the “brit shalom” that is so desperately needed right now.
This Tuesday we can fast for peace. So we can hopefully have peace fast.