Parshat Pinchas (2011)


Parshat Pinchas
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

Convenant of Peace? The split Vav of the word “Peace” in Parshat Pinchas

I’m not sure that I really have the skills and learning to truly do justice to the wonder of Parshat Pinchas! Through Kabbalah we learn the great importance and holiness of this particular parsha and I feel so humbled taking up the task of trying to explain it. Sometimes a parsha leaves me with more questions than answers; this is one of those times. Is a peace which comes about through violence a truly complete form of peace or is there left a trauma which still remains?

Peace HandsThis weeks parsha, Parshat Pinchas, seems to begin very abrupty. It begins with G-d intervening in a mess of a situation. The complex situations at hand were so delicate that G-d speaks almost immediately in a seeming tone of urgency.

At the end of the preceding parsha, Parshat Balak, we learned that Balaam could not bring a curse upon Israel for King Balak of Moab and his Midianite allies. Balaam was unable to bring harm upon Israel because there was no moral defect in the people that he could use to his advantage. So in the beginning of chapter 25 the Moabites and Midianites enact a plan of bring the people into moral corruption through sexual immorality and idol worship, a plan suggested to them by Balaam our Sages tell us.

The men were said to “commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab.” (25:1) Thus we read “they invited the people to the feast of their gods (elohei’hen); the people ate and prostrated themselves to their gods.” (v.2) Because the wording is elohei’hen (their gods), feminine plural, we know that it was the women who were used to entice the men. This is how the men of Israel fell into idol worship, we read “Israel became attached to Baal-Peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared against Israel.” (v.3) The result was that a plague broke out among the people of Israel (v. 9, 18).

But this plague was not without remedy. However, the solution offered to Moses seems perplexing. G-d tells Moses to hang, or some say impale, the leaders of the people and the plague will stop. (v.4)

The situations seems more perplexing when we find that in response to this statement Moses calls the judges of Israel together and he says “Let each man kill his men who were attached to Baal-Peor.” (v.5) My personal understanding is that “roshei ha-am / leaders of the people” and “shoftei yisra’el / judges of Israel” are the same individuals; they are the patriarchal heads of families, meaning clan leaders. This shouldn’t be hard to understand as immediately after this incident the census is taken and the patriarchal heads are all mentioned. These topics bleed one into another because this is a story concerning clan leadership.

If my understanding of this is correct then one would be expecting Moses to be executing them, not calling a meeting. The reason for this strange move on the part of Moses I believe can be explained by stepping back further into Parshat Balak.

When Balaam approached Hashem on behalf of Balak to seek a curse we learn that he was unable to curse them. When Balaam went into a prophetic trance he instead ended up blessing Israel. In the second blessing of Balaam he says , “For there is no divination in Jacob and no sorcery in Israel.” This was the merit of Israel that afforded them a blessing, but now a plague from G-d was ravishing the people for engaging in just that!

Now the third blessing was based on “how goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places oh Israel.” Rashi tells us that these words of praise are a result of Balaam looking at the arrangements of the tents of the camps of Israel and seeing that they were arranged so that the entrances did not face each other. Our Sages tells us this is because of Israel’s great modesty. Rashi cites one of the main reasons for this level of modesty is to prevent sexual immorality. We should understand that the camps were laid out with each family/clan grouped together as a family unit, with the openings of their tents facing each other in an inward arrangement; thus all the openings faced a central point like a courtyard at the center. However to the other families and tribes the openings of the tents were not visible. The reason was to protect their modesty of physical body and also to keep the private business of each clan to themselves. In this methodology each clan saw to protecting the image of their own and dealing with their own issues, and not even be tempted to be concerned with everyone else.

In essence what is going on in chapter 25 verses 5 and 6 is Moses saying to the clan leaders that they need to do their job and enforce sentence on their own that had done wrong, as Hashem was angry with their failed leadership. He was enacting a leniency giving them another opportunity to do their job, and thus remove the reason Hashem wanted them held responsible.

While he is speaking to them it says “v’hinei” which can be translated as “and / yet / however / nevertheless / behold!” Meaning to me, in response to Moses, “A man of the children of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire assembly of the children of Israel. ” We learn that this person is Zimri, son of Salu; now Salu was a leader of a clan of the tribe of Shimon. How brazen he was to openly defy Moses and all the leaders!

What Zimri was doing cannot be looked upon lightly. Not only was he openly defying the leadership, and engaging in illicit sexual activity, but he was taking it one step further. He was 1) threatening the second and last remaining reason of Divine protection the Children of Israel had been afforded, 2) was exposing the rest of the people to sin in a way that even undermined the sensibilities of the people’s modesty. Even Josephus in “Antiquities of the Jews” goes out of his way to point out that the entire people were gathered together by Moses at this time; therefore everyone in the Nation was forced to witness his immorality.

Last night as I was reading the Rambam’s (Maimonides) “Guide for the Perplexed” I came across a reference to the worship of Baal-Peor. The Rambam says, “The mode of worshiping Peor, then very general among the heathen, consisted in uncovering the nakedness. The priests were therefore commanded to make breeches for themselves to cover their nakedness during the service, and, besides, no steps were to lead up to the altar, ‘That thy nakedness be not discovered thereon’ (Exodus 20:23).” Our Sages also tell us that worship or Baal-Peor was related to ritual practices of scatology, meaning use of bodily excrements!

How shocking it must have been to the people as Zimri comes into the camp with his Midianite women. Zimri and the Midianite women both show that they had lost their sense of shame about what they are doing, and prance in naked and start engaging in their intimate acts. His attack on modesty worked, because the next thing we read is “the Children of Israel therefore were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of meeting.” We can understand this two ways. The Ramban (Nachmonides) tells us this means that the people were caught up in discussion. Ibn-Ezra, however, suggest this means they were weeping in prayer; furthermore it can be understood as weeping in prayer because of the charge to kill those who worshiped Baal-Peor.

I believe their weeping is for two reasons, 1) people are dying of the plague, and 2) they are commanded to kill their own kin. I also believe that the reaction among the congregation of Israel was two fold, encompassing both the meanings of the Ramban and Ibn-Ezra; 1) those who feared Hashem were too busy praying to act, and 2) those who didn’t fear G-d were occupied with discussing the perversion they were seeing.

Zimri’s act, so bold, even bringing her “near to his brothers” was his act of pushing the envelope. He was daring the elders to punish him. Furthermore, he felt assured that his brothers would defend him; going all the way back to the massacre of Shechem in Genesis the tribe of Shimon was willing to kill and slaughter mercilessly in defense of family honor. And even more abhorrent was that he was tempting them to follows his ill example.

For this reason we find that Pinchas stands up in the congregation, takes a tent stake, follows Zimri and his paramour into a tent and impales them both in the act of intercourse. Thus the plague stops.

Notice the act of purging the people of idolaters never takes place, Rashi points out this fact as well; but why? The reason is simple, after that point not only were the seeds of a trend of open and shameless debauchery crushed, but no one dared join in worship of Baal-Peor again, nor did the whores of Midian dare return to the camp of Israel; thus there was no reason for the plague to continue.

Now this is where I have to point out that what Pinchas did was not something that was normative. It was not within his right to take the law into his own hands. Was Zimri culpable? Yes! Were the laws that pertain to capital punishment fulfilled? Not necessarily, you see he was warned and there were witnesses; but his judgment was not given by the court, the jury was still out so to speak.

For this reason Hashem had to intervene. What Pinchas did was enacting judgment without legal right, putting himself in danger. Had Zimri saw him coming and tried to kill Pinchas for his attack Zimri would legally be within his right to kill Pinchas in self-defense. Aside from putting himself in danger of retribution from the clans of Shimon, Pinchas was also was putting himself at risk of being judicially executed for the crime of murder. Here in the beginning of Parshat Pinchas we see G-d post-facto giving a pardon to Pinchas.

His pardon was based on his act being a true act of zealotry. Now the laws of zealotry are very complicated and lengthy to discuss; and a bit out of the scope of what I could do justice to in this study. So I’ll explain simply that Pinchas’ act was one of yirat shamayim (“fear of heaven;” meaning respect and reverence of G-d), and with total disregard for himself; he did not act out of his own ego, he even went as far as to jeopardize himself. He did so with perfect intentions.

Our sages tell us that us that the people of Israel did in fact question the intentions of Pinchas. They suggested that he was a naturally bloody person, that he was just using this incident as license to act out his own innate violent nature. To make the point that this was not the case, twice we have the text readings “Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon ha-Kohen / Pinchas son of Elazar the High Priest.” As we learned in Parshat Korach, Aaron was known as the great peacemaker, the perfect example of love and compassion in the Talmud; the Torah is upholding that he was a son of peace, not a person that was naturally predisposition to murder and violence.

“‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar,

the son of Aaron the priest,

he turned back my wrath

from upon the Children of Israel

when he zealously avenged my vengeance

among them,

so I did not consume

the Children of Israel in my vengeance.”

פִּינְחָס בֶּןאֶלְעָזָר |

בֶּןאַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, |

הֵשִׁיב אֶתחֲמָתִי |

מֵעַל בְּנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל, |

בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶתקִנְאָתִי, |

בְּתוֹכָם; |

וְלֹאכִלִּיתִי |

אֶתבְּנֵייִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי: |

Number 25:11

Pinchas was being blessed by G-d in the beginning of Parshat Pinchas because he “bekan’o et-kin’ati / zealously avenged My vengeance.” The word “kana” can not only mean vengeance and jealousy (as in “I am a jealous G-d” for example), but it can also mean chauvinism regarding something. We should understand that kana here  means a demand for exclusivity, and this word in the Torah is only used in regard to Hashem alone. So we can understand that his act of kana’ut/zealotry was genuine, in that he was only acting exclusively in honor of Hashem to avenge G-d’s right to be honored exclusively.

Verses 12 and 13 read:

“Therefore, say:

Behold! I give him My covenant of peace.

And it shall be for him

and his offspring after him

a covenant of eternal priesthood,

because he took vengeance for his G-d,

and he atoned

for the Children of Israel.”

לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: |

הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶתבְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. |

וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ |

וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו |

בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָםתַּחַת, |

אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, |

וַיְכַפֵּר, |

עַלבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. |

Numbers 25:12-13

To me in Pinchas’ actions he showed what he was made out of, it verified him as a son of Aaron in not waiting but running immediately to make atonement for the people. He understood that he had to make a hard choice to stop the plague; a plague that killed over 24,000 people.

The Split Vav of the Word “Peace”

G-d makes a covenant of peace with Pinchas. Even the key blessing in this declaration of Hashem, shalom, meaning peace or friendship, shows a conflict that most people have in recounting this story. Namely that this peace was achieved through violence. In the sifrei Torah (our hand written Torah scrolls we keep in the ark at our synagogues), there is a strange phenomenon; the letter vav (ו) is split, as though it were cut in half. Understand this, if even one letter in a Torah scroll should be to be found defective the entire Sefer Torah would be rendered invalid! This strange occurrence must therefore be intentional for the purpose of revealing to us a specific truth.

The word shalom (שלום) has a Vav (ו) for purely grammatical reasons. If the letter were to be left out or nullified for defect it would have no bearing on the pronunciation at all; this vav is kin to a silent “e” in English or a silent “h” in Spanish. However, if one were to argue that the pronunciation should be altered to conform to the strict laws of grammar it would spell shalem; which means perfect, whole, complete or entire. We should understand that even the letters themselves testify that that even though Pinchas’ actions were accomplished through violence there was still peace, it lacked nothing. It was a seemingly broken peace, but it was peace none the less. Our Sages tell us that we await the coming of the King Messiah, when a true, pure and lasting peace will be established. Then the split Vav in the Torah will be made whole!

We should also take a good look at this “covenant of peace,” what was it exactly? Most assuredly this promise was a promise of priesthood, on that day he became eligible through Divine appointment to be worthy of being High Priest. And in fact he did become High Priest. Pinchas was the High Priest until the times of the latter judges (Judges 27:28), first serving at Elazar’s side and later serving as his successor. He was also promised that as long as he had offspring they would serve in the priesthood and they did. In fact it was the descendants of Pinchas that eventually served in the Beit haMikdash (the Holy Temple) as High Priests (1 Chronicles 5:30-40, 6:34-38).

However some suggest that the promise of priesthood was one part of a two-part promise; that the “covenant of peace” was a specific and independent blessing. Some suggest that this blessing of peace was peace from retribution from the Shimonites or other vigilantes. Others suggest that it was peace of mind. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the Nitzvi, suggests something even deeper; that this covenant of peace was a blessing to protect his moral character; that his moral fiber would not be corrupted through the act of killing that he had performed. How much more dramatic of a scene can there be in life other than experiencing death, somehow it tends to be a shocking eye opener that can strip one of their innocence; seeing death, let alone causing it! G-d here though this blessing is not only comforting Pinchas from any reason to feelings guilt, but also promising to protect him from being made cruel or hardened.

Pinchas, as a zealot, is one person whose shoes I’m glad I haven’t had to walk in. How terrible it must have been him having the stigma hanging over his head. Because of his loss of innocence here we see that later on as Israel is coming into the Promised Land he was the one that was sent to the front lines of battle. To me it seems reasonable that Hashem sent a person that could deal with the terrible task of carrying out the task of taking a life in times of war. We also see that it was him that was sent to deal with the city of idolatry and to deal with the Benjimites after their cruel act of dismembering a concubine.

However it seems to me that Hashem did in fact protect his moral fiber, as we see in Judges 19:28 he ask Hashem, “Should I go out again to make war against the children of Benjamin my brother or should I withdraw.” He never got hardened, trigger happy so to speak or lost respect for human life. You can almost hear that pain in his voice asking this question, does he have to go as far as be involved in an act of killing once again? How terrible a responsibility!

In fact it wasn’t until the people started settling into the land of Israel, and Joshua was not able bring peace between the tribes that Pinchas got the opportunity to settle the disputes between the tribes over land and brought them to peace with each other. Only then, towards the end of his life was he actually universally recognized as a man of peace by all Israel.

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