WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING
PARASHAT PINCHAS: 2011 / 5771
POWER OVER PASSION
And the Lord spoke onto Moses, saying: Pinchas, the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my wrath away form the children of Israel, in that he was very zealous [be-kan’o] on My behalf [et kin’ati] among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in my zeal [be-kin’ati]. Therefore say: Behold, I give onto him, My covenant of peace [shalom]: And it shall be onto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood: Because he was zealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel. (Num. 25:10-13).
The Hertz commentary on the Torah provides the following background to our text: “Filled with unsparing hatred of evil and burning indignation against a deed that was a monstrous profanation of God’s holy Name, Phinehas executed summary vengeance on Zimri and Cozbi. That action gained Phinehas the reward of hereditary High Priesthood.”
A case can be made that the type of intervention that Pinchas made is a magnificent instance of imitatio Dei –emulation of the Divine. God describes Himself as El kana [a zealous God]: You shall not bow down onto them, nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a zealous God [El kana], visiting [poked] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children onto the third and forth generation of them that hate Me. (Ex. 20:5.).
Significantly, the Hebrew root-word kana appears no fewer than three times in our text, strongly hinting at its recognition of Pinchas as the embodiment of this essential attribute of the Divine. Just as God describes Himself as passionate in His zeal to punish pagan practice so is Pinchas passionate in his zeal to punish the horrendous behavior of public fornicators.
Given the resonance of Pinchas’ character with the Divine attribute of zealous pursuit of wrongdoing, the ambivalence of the Sages of the Jerusalem Talmud to Pinchas’ act is astonishing: “Zealots can strike dead one who has proscribed sexual intercourse.” It was taught [that an assailant who does so has acted] contrary to the will of the Sages, and Pinchas acted contrary to the will of the Sages. Rabbi Yudah ben Pazi said: [The Sages of that generation] sought to excommunicate him had not a Divinely inspired voice declared preemptively: “The covenant of the priesthood will be his and his descendants’ after him forever.” (JT Sanhedrin 9:7).
The Sages’ displeasure at Pinchas’ unilateral intervention is hinted at by two scribal oddities in our text. The Hebrew letter yud in Pinchas’ name is reduced in size. That letter symbolizes the Divine. Perhaps its reduction hints at a diminution of Godliness in Pinchas on account of his hotheaded, rageful behavior. The Hebrew letter vav in the word shalom in the phrase My covenant of shalom, is written defectively. In every valid Torah Scroll this word has a broken vav [vav keti’a], as if to remind succeeding generations that the peace enjoyed by people like Pinchas can never be complete.
The Sages’ ambivalence about Pinchas is reinforced by the Patriarch Jacobs’ condemnation of a similar act of rageful zeal by his sons Shimon and Levi: Shimon and Levi are brethren: weapons of violence are their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council: Upon their assembly let my glory not be united: For in their anger they slew men. …Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel. (Gen. 49: 5-7).
The view of the Sages is not without problems. For one thing, God Himself expresses approval of Pinchas’ passionate zeal and rewards his action. For another, Pinchas’ action resonates with God’s self-description as a zealous God, indicating that Pinchas was acting in imitatio Dei. In his Torah Temimah, the great Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein offers an insightful account of the rabbinic ambivalence towards Pinchas. It is impossible to distinguish genuine ideological passion from uncontrollable fury. Although both express themselves in similar action, their motivation is radically different. Because the contents of the human heart are hidden, outside observers cannot judge the lethal effects of uncontrolled passion objectively. Since there is a strong likelihood that such actions are motivated by rage rather than by disinterested lofty principle, they must always be forbidden, lest murder and terror become rampant. God alone knows the secrets of the human heart. In Pinchas’ case, God validated the purity of his motivations. But absent God’s direct explicit justification of lethal zeal, it is never permitted.
Rabbi Epstein’s insight may well account for the incongruence of the rabbinic attitude to Pinchas with the clear meaning of the text. But it does not shed light on God’s self-description as El Kana in the Second Commandment.
Critics of Judaism have seized on the Second Commandment to contrast the Hebrew Bible’s view of God as zealous, angry and vengeful with the Christian view of the loving nature of God. I believe that this prejudice totally misreads the Second Commandment. Its context negates any view of God as passionately vengeful. The phrase: Visiting the iniquity of the fathers [poked avon avot] upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me (Ex. 20:5) centers on the word poked. This word can be translated as “visits,” and is usually translated in this way. But it also means, “to make a deposit,” to set aside for future contingencies. In this sense the meaning of the Second Commandment is that God sets aside for future contingencies the consequences of the sins of the fathers, just as one sets aside funds in a bank for future contingencies. According to the Second Commandment, God suspends, sets aside, His wrath for up to four generations, hoping that the merit of a worthy descendent will cancel the moral debt of his or her sinful forbear. Accordingly, God describes himself as anything but rageful. The image is of great tolerance, patience, optimism, and love.
If this is true, why does God call himself El Kana? Rabbi Ya’acov Mecklenberg, author of Sefer ha-Ketav ve-ha-Kabbalah, provides a majestic answer to this question. The Hebrew word el means power. Elim were the pagan personifications of various natural powers. The Hebrew word Elohim describes God as the sum total of all the powers of the cosmos. Therefore the phrase El Kana denotes the One who exercises power over passion, restraint over rage, control of burning zeal. This is who God really is.
Rabbi Mecklenberg’s ingenious interpretation impressively explains the rabbinic disapproval of Pinchas’ action, the diminished yud in his name, and the broken peace he was to experience.
It is impossible to do God’s arithmetic and to fully understand his vindication of Pinchas’ action. At best we have to validate Rabbi Epstein’s explanation. God alone knows the secrets of the human heart and judges accordingly. But the view of the Rabbis is abundantly clear. Fanatical lethal zeal does not reflect the Divine. To live in imitatio Dei requires us to exercise power over passion, restraint over rage, compassion rather than hatred. Acts of terror are never justified. Terror in the name of God is nothing short of monstrous, and indoctrinators and dispatchers of human bombers are despicable monsters.