Parashat Pinchas 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת פִּינְחָס
Torah Portion: Numbers 25:10-30:1
At what point does an act of passion cross the line from acceptable to unacceptable, laudatory to abhorrent? At what point does a zealot cross the line from hero to criminal? When someone crosses that line, how should we respond as a society?
These questions come up too frequently because the answers, whether we like it or not, are relative. The answers depend on one’s worldview and value system. For those of us who live in a society that values the rule of law and the sanctity of life, any unprovoked action that would take a life is murder; we would condemn the action and see that the perpetrator is brought to justice. Sadly, not everyone lives in such a society, or if they do, they find reason to defy the law and commit any number of acts that the rest of us would identify as heinous. We often read about radical adherents to certain beliefs who routinely take lives in the name of a “higher cause,” whether or not their own lives are in danger. We call them terrorists. They call themselves martyrs or even patriots.
When I watch the hearings of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, I am sickened by the callous abuse of power by our 45th president. It is clear by now that the individuals who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2020 thought they were performing their patriotic duty as determined and commanded by the President of the United States. To some of them, loss of life was a necessary means to ensuring their leader would remain in office. Our legal system is sorting out who among those people are criminals and is meting out justice accordingly. At the same time, too many supporters of the 45th president cling to the idea that those same criminals are heroes who had the “guts” to do what they thought was right.
A case of even greater moral ambiguity presents itself in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas. In last week’s Torah portion, we read that Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, took it upon himself to kill a blazingly defiant Israelite man and a Midianite woman who, in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community, entered a nearby tent, presumably to engage in sexual activity. This action comes on the heels of God’s commands to Moses to have Israel’s military officers slay all those Israelite men who had been tempted by Moabite women to worship the Moabite deity, Baal-peor. In the case at hand, however, Pinchas slays not only the Israelite man but also the Midianite woman. The Torah spares no words: “(Pinchas) followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Isralite and the woman, through the belly” (Num. 25:8).
Despite the seemingly extrajudicial nature of Pinchas’s zealotry, God, in the conclusion to the story in this week’s reading, rewards Pinchas with a b’rit shalom, a pact of friendship. “It shall be for him and descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites” (Num. 25:13). As a result of Pinchas’s action, God lifted a plague from Israel that had by then claimed 24,000 lives.
When I read about Pinchas, I am appalled both by Pinchas’s disregard for human life and by God’s approval of Pinchas’s zealotry. I wasn’t so keen on the idea of Israel’s military officials slaying the lustful Israelite men, either, but what Pinchas did violated all norms of civility and decency as he acted in such a public and violent way. I am not alone in my feelings. According to Jacob Milgrom in the Jewish Publication Society Torah Commentary on the Book of Numbers (p. 215):
The rabbis were uncomfortable with Pinchas’s act. He set a dangerous precedent by taking the law into his own hands and slaying a man impulsively, in disregard of the law. Some argue that Moses and the other leaders would have excommunicated him were it not for the divine decree declaring that Pinchas had acted on God’s behalf. Regarding this, a recent commentator remarks: “Who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That is why the sages wished to excommunite Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.”
Clearly, the virtue of Pinchas’s action is open to debate. I wouldn’t say the same for the men and women who attacked the United States Capitol or for any other seditious actor or terrorist. Nonetheless, this week’s Torah portion should give all of us pause as we take stock of the events of January 6, 2020. The line between hero and criminal is thinner than we think. When despots appeal to the aggrieved and vulnerable with demagoguery, their fight soon morphs into a Holy War. Sometimes those holy warriors are rewarded, as was Pinchas. Sometimes they are punished, as is the case with those who attacked the Capitol on January 6th. The lesson for us is to constantly mind that line between virtue and villain lest the line disappear altogether and we lose all sense of right and wrong. Unfortunately, there are forces out there waiting for just such a moment. We must hold the line.