Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Balak

We walk in a world teeming with zealous based violence. Sadly, it sometimes seems as if zealotry is winning the day. In the midst of the terrorism, the politics, and the seemingly free license people now take in demeaning each other; we get the story of Pinchas. Our weekly Torah portion ends with a story that ends up spanning the ending and beginning of two weeks’ portions. Israel is losing its way and fraternizing with the enemy. A plague has hit the people. Moses and the elders are meeting and grieving, trying to figure out how to help and solve the problem. In walks Pinchas. He doesn’t like the fact that Israelites are cavorting with enemy. He watches as an Israeli Chieftain brings a Midianite woman into camp, and he picks up his spear and impales the couple in his rage. “Zealous for God,” Pinchas took it upon himself to say that fraternizing with the enemy is a capital offense. Now, please note that Judaism demands that we are to turn our enemy into our friend. Moses was there, as were the elders, and none of them resorted to violence. Pinchas resorted to violence.

As a result of the act, God rewards Pinchas with a blessing. He becomes the High Priest and receives the eternal blessing of peace! Interestingly, the rabbis throughout history have real problems with this text. They ask, “Why should we reward zealotry that destroys lives?” Zealotry and extremism races through and plagues every civilization in every age, and ours seems to suffer mightily in its wake. Religious and political zealotry/extremism provides the roots for most of the violence making headlines today. As destructive as extremism is, how can our Torah reward Pinchas for his violence?

I think we often read the text too simplistically. What Pinchas receives is not really a reward. Yes, he is given the priesthood, but with it, comes the responsibility for living up to his grandfather’s teaching. Aaron (the first High Priest) taught that we were to pursue peace. Pinchas may have been the Priest, but tradition teaches that the people were unimpressed and held him in very low regard. The Jerusalem Talmud states that Pinchas’ deed did not meet with the approval of Moses and the elders. One Sage argues that Pinchas would have been excommunicated had not God intervened, declaring that the eternal covenant of the priesthood and peace rested on him. The sages argue that this was not a reward, it was an antidote! The only way God could turn Pinchas, and those who might follow him from wrath is to empower them … enforce upon them, the blessing of leadership and peace. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides argues that one must avoid extremes. The antidote for one extreme (zealotry) is the opposite extreme (peace). In the balance between the two, Pinchas will gain perspective.

The extremist language of the political (not just in America) and uber-religious world serve to diminish our capacity to honor each other’s dignity, especially in matters over which we disagree. This phenomenon is not new, and our tradition has a response: we are prisoners of hope. For all of the narrow-minded politicians and the zealots who paint God into their own narrow superstitious boxes, Torah has an answer: Hope and peace. Now I understand that this is no longer the 1960’s and “flower power” has run its course, but in all seriousness, Maimonides is correct. If we want to end the madness; we will need to grow our commitment to peace. If we want to combat the zealotry that serves only to destroy society, we have to respond, with equal force, with peace. I am not suggesting an easy solution. The rhetoric of disdain and hate did not grow overnight. No, this will take an investment by each of us in the cause of restoring relationships and bringing peace. We see it happening in communities across our world where people respond to violence with vigils. We see communities rejecting the calls for hate and replacing them with commitments for care and concern. We saw a church forgive one who slaughtered its pastor and membership. We see, every day, the stories of reconciliation that make us want to cry. We see it in the graciousness with which we address our neighbors and the consideration for others when we drive. We do not have to accept that the way we run divisive elections or the way in which zealots demand to have their way are our new norms. Each of us has the power to match force with force: the force of engaging peace for every act of aggression. If we simply watch and shake our heads, if we walk away afraid, if we do anything other than stand up to the hate, we will succumb to it … and we all know – love is a whole lot more powerful. Shabbat Shalom.