Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Pinkhas

We hold strong opinions on what we believe to be right or wrong. Yes, it is appropriate to try and follow traditions and keep them alive, but often times, we get so caught up in our own interpretations of what is and is not right, that we forget that rules and traditions perpetuate to ensure the integrity of relationships.

Ritual traditions exist because a community has decided that it best grows when people act in concert … in ways that take care of each other’s spiritual needs. Ritual norms provide us with a vehicle for spiritual growth and for the pursuit of holiness. We light candles to help us separate time. We pay attention to what we eat so that we can be intentional in giving thanks for that which sustains us. We honor a commitment of stewardship towards the earth and towards each other in order to live meaningful lives. While certain communities accept standards for ritual observance, these “rules” are always temporal, as humanity needs the flexibility to evolve in order to stay relevant.

Holiness is found in this commitment to relevance in real world relationships that elevate the souls of everyone engaged. When we become more concerned with being “right” than being holy, proffering the “my way or you do not count” mentality, even the most “religious” of ritual lives serves to destroy the community. There is no godliness in zealotry … even zealotry for God. I refuse to accept that God can be known in only one voice, one path, or by one people.

Thus is the conundrum I face as I read this week’s Torah portion. Last week, Pinkhas saw an Israelite chieftan cohabitating with a Moabite priestess. Even while Moses and the elders sat, he jumped up and impaled the two for violating “God’s commands of national purity.” Scholars through the ages really struggle with this text. The problem we face is that even while the Bible condemns zealotry and violence, here, Pinkhas seems to be rewarded for protecting God’s integrity.

The text will remind us that he is a Priest, and in line to be the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Commentary after commentary argues that God does not like violence, but in this case, there was a unique reason hat justified the deadly assault. In each case, commentators rework the text to make sense out of this very difficult story.I think that our sages try too hard.

Pinkhas is an angry man, and his anger causes him to upstage Moses and the elders who saw what Pinkhas sees, but did not take it upon themselves to be judge, jury, and executioner on a matter that was God’s to judge. Keeping the entirety of the story in context, the story is less about Pinkhas, and more about God. God has already promised the priesthood to Aaron and his offspring. God affirmed that this promise would not be broken, but Pinkhas is an angry person, and a man with such anger could not possibly serve as an effective Priest. In affirming that Pinkhas’ lineage would hold the Priesthood (as promised), God also mandated that a covenant of peace should rest over Pinkhas and his offspring. This covenant of peace mandated a change in behavior; if he is to serve as a Priest, he needs to start living and acting the role and demeanor of a Priest.

We recognize that this covenant is a work in progress. In the Torah, the word for peace, “Shalom,” is written with a letter that is intentionally defective. The sages teach us that the covenant of peace had to be made whole … this is our charge.

Rabbi Marc A. Kline