At the end of last week’s parasha we read about Pinchas, who spears to death Zimri, an Israelite, whilst he is enjoying a time of pleasure with Cozbi, a Midianite priestess, in flagrant disobedience of the law Moses is trying to enforce. Pinchas kills them both with one stab, and as he does so, the plague which had befallen the community, abruptly ends. This week, we pick up the story and find out what God has to say about Pinchas’ actions. God says: “Pinchas…has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying amongst them his zeal for me so that I did not wipe out the people of Israel in my zeal…therefore I grant him my covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants…a pact of priesthood for all time because he took zealous action for God thus making expiation for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25:10-13)
So it seems that not only is Pinchas not chastised for killing in the name of God, taking the law into his own hands and behaving like a zealot, he is rewarded for it with an eternal covenant and the priesthood! I have always found this passage to be incredibly disturbing. I don’t want to believe in the kind of God who brings a plague and ends it because a zealot, filled with righteous indignation, murders two people in cold blood. The rabbis of our tradition were also concerned about this reading and God’s seeming approval and so they narrowed the acceptability of his act by so great a margin that the circumstances under which this act would be acceptable again are virtually impossible to meet.
A number of years ago however, I read an alternate understanding of this passage which sits much more easily with me. It was written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow who suggests that God was behaving very much like Pinchas. He says God brought a plague upon the people because God was jealous, and zealous. It was an extreme reaction of righteous anger, it was immediate and disproportionate but it was not until Pinchas strode into the tent of Cozbi and Zimri and imitated God, that God saw the error of God’s ways. In that moment, God was jolted back to reality and like a parent, saw Godself reflected in the eyes of Pinchas, saw God’s own jealous anger and as if saw for the first time what God was doing. It was then that God stopped the plague and made a pact of peace with Pinchas; we will both stop what we are doing and agree never again to cause such destruction with our jealousy and anger. Rabbi Waskow suggests this reading of the passage above: “In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy and zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Pinchas imitated me and turned his hand to zealous killing. His zealous act opened my eyes. I saw him as a mirror of Myself. He shocked Me into shame at what I was doing. That is why I stopped the plague, that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of peace, I said to him: you stop and I will stop. Both of us must be bound by this covenant of peace.”
In this reading the story takes on an entirely different message and meaning. It says, zealous killing in God’s name is never ok, not by humans, not by God. Rage, zeal and jealousy can never be a justification for killing. Pinchas and God make a deal and it is only when he agrees to work for peace, goodness and life that he is merited the gift of the priesthood. Leaders must be calm, rational, love people and interpret laws with kindness and dispense justice with compassion and peace. And it is only when Pinchas agrees to the pact, he is worthy of inheriting the priesthood. In the past weeks we have seen leaders in the Jewish community speaking with hatred and anger, zealous in their belief that there is only one way, denigrating Jews who do not agree with their position. In a few weeks we commemorate Tisha B’Av, where we remember, amongst other tragedies, the destruction of the Temple because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred amongst Jews. I pray that we can learn the lessons from this parasha, to pursue a covenant of peace with each other and our neighbors, and to choose leaders who will speak with kindness, compassion and peace.