Finish What You Start

Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. He also said that “Nothing happens until something moves.” Indeed, constant movement seems to be the essence of everything. This is one of the few empirical truths we should also consider as normative. To stop, to do nothing, is a fundamental violation of the principle that governs the entire universe. If you violate this principle, if you stop, you won’t have to wait long for the consequences.

In the story from this week’s parasha, two of the Israelite tribes did, in fact, try to stop short. After settling in the favorable piece of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, Reubenites and Gadites decided that they didn’t have to conquer the Promised Land, that they could just stay where they were – it was good enough:

The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:1-5)

Upon hearing their plea, Moses rebukes them saying that they were committing the same sin as the Isrealites when they took the advice of the spies who, after exploring the Promised Land, discouraged all the people of Israel from conquering it, which resulted in God punishing them with an additional 40 years of wandering in the desert.

After Moses reminded them of this punishment (Num 32:10-14), the Gadites and Reubenites humble themselves under the Divine “threat”. They assure both Moses and God that although they will secure the well-being of their families and flocks in territories already conquered on the eastern side of the Jordan river, they will join their brethren in the conquest of “the core part” of the Promised Land, located on the west side of the river. The promise they make ultimately dismisses the Divine wrath.

This Divine anger is a punishment that happens when we withdraw from an effort, and this is how the story can be understood today. The principle of the story being: never stop halfway along the path you have taken, even if what you have achieved is satisfying enough. Be true to your original goals and intentions and follow through. Do not be fooled by temporary prosperity and stability, because what you already perceive as your reward may, in the near future, in fact, become a punishment. At best, you will plunge into boredom. Then you will regret not taking the next step. You will regret that you lacked the courage and wonder what you could have achieved, especially if the opportunity disappears. Also, never set a goal of just being happy, because that doesn’t really mean anything and what is worse is you can be sure that you are unaware of what will actually make you happy unless you continue to make, work toward and achieve your goals. Happiness is a feeling that accompanies our achievements. We achieve happiness when we achieve the goals we have set ourselves and even if you are unable to ever “feel” happy you will have a sense of accomplishment, of making a difference in the world. We are fundamentally narrative creatures; the essence of our existence is to constantly move forward. The only end point is death. Even if we are very successful and achieve all our goals, the moment we achieve them, we envision the next ones (if we don’t we must envision them). In all you do, reach for the Promised Land and don’t stop… ever, reaching… because none of our goals are, in fact, final.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart

The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart

Thoughts on parashat Shelach

Menachem Mirski

Reason, feelings, senses… Since antiquity philosophers, thinkers and writers have wandered about these notions relating to intellectual and spiritual phenomena. What should we follow and when? Are there any general rules in this matter or does everything depend on the situation?

Opinions on this matter were divided. This week’s Torah portion also raises this point:

[…] And it shall be to you as a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray. (Numbers 15:39)

These words are the words of the third paragraph of our daily Shema: ve’lo taturu akharei levavchem ve’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem. The Hebrew verb taturu used here to express ‘you shall not seek after’ is the same as the verb (latur) used to describe spying that was to be done by the spies exploring the Promised Land at the very beginning of our parasha (Number 13:2, 13:16) As Rashi explains it further by quoting other sources:

The heart and the eyes are the “spies” of the body — they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’lach 15; cf. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:8).

Indeed, our hearts and senses provoke us to sin and this claim can be found in many religious traditions. But what does this ‘not following’ or ‘not exploring/seeking after’ our hearts and eyes really mean? How can we define it? When our feelings/sensory impressions are kosher and when they are not?

The verse itself gives us a hint: you should have tzitzit and look at them (they remind you of the commandments) so that you do not follow your heart or eyes (or other senses). But should we follow the commandments exclusively and completely reject our feelings and testimony of the senses? Some philosophical traditions have taught that but the Torah would have never suggested it. On the contrary, it is precisely a drinking in of the beauty and wonder of the universe that is likely to draw us closer to God and to love and fear Him. This is what Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda observed in his Duties of the Heart:

Are we obliged to contemplate all created things or not? Both Reason and Tradition (written and oral) oblige us to contemplate creation and learn from it the wisdom of the Creator…
With respect to written tradition it is stated in the Bible: “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these?” (Isaiah 40:26) and “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Thus by loving the Creation we reach the Creator. In the rabbinic literature we can find even stronger expressions of love towards surrounding reality:

“A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12).

Rav Yehuda said: One who goes out during Nisan and sees trees that are blossoming recites: Blessed…who has withheld nothing from His world, and has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 43b)

The Rabbis also introduced multiple blessings with which we should bless God for creating the entire variety of natural phenomena: sea, sun, thunder, rainbow, an unusual creature or even something as abstract as beauty itself:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shekahcha lo baolamo.
Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe, who has [brought] such [beautiful things] in His universe.

Obviously we also have numerous blessings for various kinds of food, for which we bless the Creator everyday. Thus, how should we understand the commandment that tells us not to follow our hearts and our senses?

I believe that the proper, modern understanding of this commandment should be the following: We need to be constantly able to discern the connection between the phenomena we experience and the Creator. As long as we see this connection, are connected with the Creator ourselves and are grateful for everything that happens to us, we can do quite a lot, without a risk of being led astray by our feelings or senses. This is all on the spiritual level. On the practical level, it all means – metaphorically speaking – never taking your eyes off the tzitzit – off the commandments. In other words, we need to see (or at least be able to see) all reality in the context of the Divine law.

What are the further, practical consequences of what I just suggested here? I believe that we shall never base our (ethical) judgments exclusively on what our heart tells us – exclusively on empathy, exclusively on compassion. These judgements will never be just. Compassion, empathy should be a component of our judgments but only within the wider context of the Divine law that distinguishes what is good and evil, right and wrong. Only when we are able to situate a human being or an action we judge in this context, then we can let our heart speak. In other words – we need to know who the person morally is or know the exact details of the actions we are talking about. Similarly we should never base our judgments exclusively on what we saw or experienced. It is always limited. There is always a lot more that we did not see nor experience. Here again, we should constantly look at our tzitzit – Divine commandments and judge the reality within this framework. The Divine law, spirit and wisdom helps us to constantly overcome our human limitations: subjectivity of our feelings, perception and our views. It also expands our great, but still limited, imagination.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

Thoughts on Parashat Beha’alotecha

 Menachem Mirski

When we look around at the life of our society, we often wonder why these or those problems and injustices take place. We find answers here and there, in the media, in the scientific literature, or in the opinions of other people. These answers are true to varying degrees. There are those that include deep and complicated analyses – they are usually presented by scientists, philosophers etc. There are plenty of simple or superficial answers to these problems – these are usually presented by politicians. The criterion of their truthfulness, however, is basically one: their practical effectiveness – whether they help to remove the problems they speak about or not.

This week’s Torah portion speaks about this kind of social problem: we have a story of Israelites complaining that they have no meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4-15) This complaint causes the Divine wrath, which is, however, stopped (temporarily) by Moses. But let’s pause here and analyze this part of the story in a bit greater depth. Midrash Sifre explains that the demand for meat could be a cause for God’s vexation, however, not for the fact that the Israelities indeed lacked meat, but for the fact they did not lack it while wandering through the desert. The Torah tells us that they left Egypt with great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle:

…A mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.
(Exodus 12:38).

They had not consumed them all in the desert. Surely they ate some, but the herds increased during 40 years of wandering – when they were about to enter the land we are told that:

The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers.
(Numbers 32:1)

Thus, it was not the complete lack of meat that made the Israelities complaining. But it is possible that these two tribes – Reubenites and Gadites – had more, or even much more livestock than the 10 remaining tribes. If that was the case, then it would mean that only some of the Israelites lacked meat to eat and only some of them complained. There are two other hints regarding this matter in our parasha. First, Moses, when speaking with God, confirms, that they indeed had livestock:

Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?” (Numbers 11:22)

But at the same time the way Moses speaks about it suggests that there was some gluttonous desire an insatiability involved here, which is completely in line with what we find in the verse 11:4:

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, If only we had meat to eat! (Numbers 11:4).

Thus, what is really going on here is that the group of people called in Hebrew ha’aspesuf, which can be translated as the riffraff, rabble or mob is frustrated and expresses a gluttonous craving: the Hebrew hit’avu ta’ava can be translated as they coveted with lust. Why did they desire the meat so lustfully? Because they were hungry? Not necessarily. It’s possible that they complained because others had meat and they didn’t. This reading is confirmed by Ramban, who says that the wealthier ones had meat in the desert all the time. Some people tend to view the Israelites wandering through the desert as some sort of “equally disadvantaged” group of people who just left the country where they were all “equally oppressed.” In fact, there is neither textual, nor common-sense evidence that this view is correct. It seems that even in Egypt there was disparity between the Israelites, both in the matter of wealth and social status – if they even existed in Auschwitz (as described in P. Levi or J. Amery writings for example), why should they not exist in Egypt, in place where, despite slavery and the terrible living conditions, our ancestors could survive, had families and were able to meet their needs. They all left Egypt with what they had, some had more and some had less. Then, while encamping in the desert, some were frugal and resourceful, and some others were lazy or wasteful, as people normally are.

Therefore, it seems that the Divine wrath that followed their complaints was not an irritation of a Deity who has anger management issues and finds pleasure in torturing the poor, disadvantaged people. It seems that this Divine anger was a common form of spiritual unrest that stemmed from more complex social phenomena: frustration, gluttony, greed, lack of spiritual discipline and perhaps some general, unjust social divisions among the Israelite tribes.

Poverty isn’t good but it is not poverty itself that causes unrest, hatred and violence. There are plenty of poor and disadvantaged societies in the world where the crime rate is not higher than in our affluent, Western societies. It is the relative poverty that causes all of that; it is the situation in which some people lack perspectives to grow, to obtain better social status, while seeing others doing well and constantly moving up in the social hierarchy. This happens, on a smaller or larger scale, in every human society. But the reasons it happens are not purely ‘systemic’; it is not only due to the fact how the society is organized. There are plenty of equally valid reasons for which unrest and injustices happen: educational, cultural and spiritual. It really matters what people are being taught in our societies: whether they are taught frugality and (spiritual) discipline, or entitlement, wastefulness and balagan are being tolerated or even rewarded. It really matters whether we really teach social solidarity and sensitivity towards the needs of others, or these are all just phony upper class gestures made to feel morally better and to appease ‘the mob’.

Therefore, given the complexity of the problem, ein la’davar sof – there is no end in the strivings for justice in our societies. We all should be actively involved in it. God, in His response to Moses’ intercession for the Israelites singles out seventy elders whom He bestows with His Divine spirit. It was all done to heal the Israelite community and to teach them self-control, mindfulness and to fill them with spiritual strength, joy and hope. All these things matter enormously and they cannot be brought or changed ‘systemically’. It is a spiritual duty of every human individual: everyone of us should share the spark of the Divine wisdom he or she obtained. The work towards justice and peace is to a large extent on us, common people: we have to teach each other and learn from each other as much as we can.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA


To do God’s work before He does it

Thoughts on parashat Bemidbar

 Menachem Mirski 

Life sometimes puts us in difficult and complicated situations, in which we say to ourselves “it will be ok”, and then it turns out that what we feared the most becomes reality. It also happens that we are filled with enormous optimism in these difficult situations, which makes us only see what is positive and we do not even let ourselves think that it may happen otherwise. Our disappointment is then much greater. Then, after the fact, we hold ourselves accountable and sometimes find that we didn’t do everything we could to prevent the situation, that we could have been more foresight, circumspect and done more.

Our portion of Torah for this week starts with words that seem to have nothing to do with what I wrote above:

 On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house. (Numbers 1:1-4)

God commands Moses to count the tribes of Israel in order to determine the number of men able to go forth in the army into battle, in order to conquer Eretz Israel.  We may ask: why does (all-knowing) God need this number, does He not know it? The answer to that question is: He doesn’t need that number. Moses, the other leaders of Israel, and the people of Israel themselves need it to plan and accomplish this conquest. They need it, because from the moment of leaving Egypt, divine protection and intervention are gradually diminishing. Only the first battle, with the Egyptians, was fought for Israel by God himself, with his own hands, which included sinking the Egyptian armies into the sea. The next battle, fought with the Amalekites immediately after the exodus from Egypt (Ex 17: 8-16), was fought by the Israelites themselves. The relationship between the Chosen People and the Eternal One is consolidated then in a form of partnership, not as a complete dependence on God.

As Nahmanides, following the sages, put it, we must never rely on miracles but must take all necessary preparations for meeting the enemy. Similarly, in our individual life, when we struggle with the challenges that are thrown at us: we must be constantly able to estimate what depends on us, what is in our power and what, consequently, belongs to our duties, which we should not burden the Eternal or other people. Then we should do all that is within our power to face evil or danger. Because of our unique relationship with the Eternal, miracles will (probably) happen (which we observed even in our not very distant history). If they happen, it will be an additional gift for us, a reward for our wisdom and readiness to act –  a gift that will bring us relief, happiness and restore peace between the people.


Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA



Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

Poznałem Pinchasa wiele razy. W istocie wydaje się, że prawie w każdej społeczności, w jakiej służyłem, był jakiś Pinchas! Jest on (bądź ona) ogromnie entuzjastyczny, głęboko zaangażowany, impulsywny i ma skłonność do podejmowania szybkich i skrajnych działań, nie zawsze do końca przemyślanych. Mają dobre intencje i wiedzą, że realizują dzieło Boga i że Bóg jest po ich stronie. Niektórzy z nich zostają nawet rabinami albo przynajmniej ludźmi przekonanymi, że wiedzą więcej od rabinów! Z najgłębszym szacunkiem, potrafią być też zupełnie nieznośni.

W istocie sam Pinchas był nieznośny w dwójnasób – jako że pod koniec zeszłotygodniowej sidry (w Lb 25, 6-8) wstaje i z własnej inicjatywy przebija włócznią dwójkę osób zastanych „in flagranti” – Izraelitę przez plecy (najwyraźniej był na górze), a Midianitkę przez brzuch. Tora pozwala sobie przy tym nawet na żart – Pinchas wchodzi do „kuba” – jest to słowo, które pojawia się tylko w tym miejscu i oznacza rodzaj dużego, ceremonialnego namiotu – i przebija włócznią parę nieszczęśników w trakcie ich ostatecznego „stosunku przerywanego” przez „kuba” – słowo to pojawia się w Torze tylko dwukrotnie, ale tutaj oznacza brzuch albo żołądek. Była to wyjątkowa prowokacja – wielu spośród Izraelitów, którzy teraz mieszkali w Szitim, zaczęło zadawać się z lokalnymi Moabitkami, a nawet zaczęli przyłączać się do ich rytualnego oddawania czci „Baal Peorowi” – przypuszczalnie miejscowemu bogu góry Peor, o której wspomina się w Lb 23, 28 i z której Balak i Bilaam spoglądają w dół na pustynię. Samo słowo „Peor” oznacza „szeroki” albo „otwarty”. Bóg jest naturalnie rozgniewany, że Izraelici przestrzegają pogańskich zwyczajów – dołączając do rytualnych ofiarnych posiłków ze zwierząt poświęconych bożkowi Baalowi, a zwłaszcza angażując się w stosunki płciowe, które w kultach pogańskich miały najwyraźniej symbolizować relację między człowiekiem a bogiem.

Czytamy następnie zwięzłe, ale bardzo gwałtowne i brutalne wersety opisujące sposób, w jaki zostaną ukarani winni (25, 4-5) – i dokładnie w tym momencie Izraelita (Zimri) postanawia współżyć w bardzo publiczny, prowokacyjny sposób z Midianitką (Kozbi); nie jest do końca jasne, w którym namiocie oddawali się swojej rozpuście – Izraelici siedzą i lamentują przy wejściu do Miszkanu, Namiotu Spotkania – „Ohel Moed”. Czy nasza para w istocie użyła „Ohel Moed” jako kuba i miejsca dla swojej schadzki? Jeśli tak, to dopuściliby się jego zbezczeszczenia – ale nie w takim stopniu, co Pinchas, który w swojej gorliwości i porywczości morduje dwie istoty ludzkie, rozlewając tym samym ludzką krew w świętym namiocie…. Krótko mówiąc, mamy do czynienia z naprawdę nieciekawą sytuacją, z kryzysem. I to abstrahując od politycznych konsekwencji zamordowania Midianickiej księżniczki, córki wodza.

Być może właśnie dlatego rabini postanowili podzielić sidrot właśnie w tym miejscu, w środku relacji na temat tych wydarzeń. Żeby dać wszystkim szansę na odzyskanie oddechu, żeby zastanawiali się przez tydzień, jak ta historia potoczy się dalej w kolejny szabat. Żeby mogli się uspokoić.

Ale reakcja zatyka dech w piersiach. Bóg mówi Mojżeszowi, że wnuk jego brata (jako że Pinchas jest wnukiem Aharona) dobrze postąpił i że wszyscy powinni być z niego dumni! Choć Pinchas należy już do rodu kapłańskiego, to teraz jego status kapłański oraz status jego potomków został zagwarantowany na zawsze. (Nawiasem mówiąc, kohen powinien oczywiście unikać wszelkiego kontaktu z ludzkimi zwłokami i ludzką krwią, które uczyniłyby go nieczystym – może Pinchas użył długiej włóczni i dzięki temu nie został ochlapany krwią?). Bóg mówi nawet, że za sprawą swojego czynu Pinchas zasługuje na „Moje przymierze szalom” – „Briti Szalom”. Bóg zatrzymuje plagę.

W rozdziale 26 przeprowadzony zostaje kolejny spis powszechny, a tym razem osobą odpowiedzialną za liczenie jest Eleazar, ojciec Pinchasa; tym razem celem jest ustalenie, ilu jest dostępnych mężczyzn w wieku poborowym (powyżej 20 lat) – jako że żadnego z tych młodych mężczyzn nie było na świecie, kiedy Mojżesz z Aharonem przeprowadzili pierwszy spis powszechny na pustyni Synajskiej – za wyjątkiem Kaleba i Jozuego. Rzeczywiście nadszedł czas na zmianę na górze i Mojżeszowi przykazuje się, żeby przygotował się na własne „usunięcie ze stanowiska” i żeby mianował Jozuego na swojego następcę, za przyzwoleniem Arcykapłana Eleazara. Eleazar zajął miejsce Aharona, a Jozue zajmie miejsce Moszego, jedyna różnica jest taka, że Eleazar był synem Aharona, zaś Jozue nie jest w ogóle spokrewniony z Mojżeszem.

W Lb 31, 6 wojska izraelickie wysłano, żeby walczyły z Midianitami; Pinchas zostaje wysłany jako swoisty pierwszy „kapelan wojskowy”, „który zabrał ze sobą święte naczynia i trąby wojenne.” Tym razem nie jest uzbrojony w żadną broń, a tylko w wyposażenie służące do rytuałów i do komunikacji. Przypuszczalnie uważano, że jest młody i w dobrej formie fizycznej i nie będzie się bał widoku krwi. Czy jest to rodzaj awansu czy też degradacji? To wciąż właśnie do jego ojca Eleazara ludzie muszą przynosić wszystkie łupy. Jest to nieprzyjemna historia i trzeba zadać sobie pytanie, jaką tak naprawdę rolę odgrywa w tym wszystkim Pinchas.

O co tu więc chodzi? Co Bóg próbuje powiedzieć Mojżeszowi i jego bratankowi, ojcowi Pinchasa? Co próbuje powiedzieć ludowi? Że siedzenie przed wejściem do Namiotu Spotkania i lamentowanie nad zaistniałą sytuacją nie wystarczy, że trzeba COŚ zrobić? Podjąć działanie, a w razie konieczności dopuścić się przemocy? Sądzę, że u wielu z nas taka myśl budzi dyskomfort. Judaizm nie jest formą pacyfizmu, rozumiemy, że czasem konieczne są wojny obronne, a uczestniczenie w takiej wojnie uznawane jest nawet za „milchemet micwa” – jednak w tym przypadku zagrożenie, z jakim zmagają się Izraelici, ma charakter duchowy, a nie fizyczny; ich wiara w niewidzialnego, jedynego Boga jest wystawiana na próbę w efekcie styczności z rozkoszami pogańskiego politeizmu i oddawania się przyjemnościom materialnym i fizycznym – jest to z pewnością rozpaczliwa sytuacja, ale czy usprawiedliwia to taką rzeź? Niestety historia świata wypełniona jest sytuacjami, kiedy jedna grupa czuła się usprawiedliwiona, żeby zmasakrować inną grupę po prostu za wyznawanie „niewłaściwych” przekonań i zjawisko to nie przeszło jeszcze do historii – tutaj, w tych rozdziałach, odkrywamy ku naszemu dyskomfortowi, że historia żydowska – albo, żeby lepiej to ująć, starożytna historia izraelicka – nie jest całkowicie wolna ani od takich koncepcji, ani od takich zajść.

Jako Żydzi czasem – nazbyt często – mierzyliśmy się z egzystencjalnym pytaniem: „za co jesteś gotów umrzeć?” – i wielu Żydów wybierało na przykład raczej męczeństwo aniżeli chrzest. Druga strona tego samego pytania brzmi: „za co jesteś gotów zabić?”. Mam nadzieję, że większość z nas nie będzie się nigdy musiała mierzyć z tym pytaniem w konkretnej, rzeczywistej sytuacji, ale niedawno toczyłem dyskusję z członkiem kongregacji w Berlinie, któremu nie podobała się modlitwa za Siły Obronne Izraela w synagodze – „Możemy równie dobrze wrócić do błogosławienia armat!” – powiedział. Nie zgodziłem się z nim. Są w tej chwili młodzi mężczyźni i kobiety, których obowiązkiem jest chronić i bronić – w razie konieczności (i jest to obwarowane warunkami i podlega ścisłej kontroli) przy użyciu przemocy, przy użyciu broni, tak żeby inni mogli dalej wieść swoje życie jako Żydzi w (stosunkowym) pokoju. Nie dlatego, że inni koniecznie chcą, żebyśmy przyjęli ich religię, ale ponieważ chcą, żebyśmy porzucili naszą własną – albo nie widzą powodu, dlaczego mielibyśmy żyć, jeśli mamy naszą odrębną religię. Jest to poważny problem i póki co nic nie wskazuje na to, żeby miał zniknąć, a jego zaczątek możemy zaobserwować już w Biblii.

Pinchas NIE jest wzorem do naśladowania dla nas wszystkich, ale jest człowiekiem, który bierze sprawy w swoje ręce, żeby zrobić to, co uznaje za słuszne. Przynajmniej za to należy mu się nasz szacunek, nawet jeśli uznamy jego metody za nazbyt skrajne w bardziej „normalnych” czasach.

Szabat Szalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

tłum. Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka


About our obligations to the Covenant.

Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar


Menachem Mirski


This Sabbath we begin the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew Bamidbar (In the Desert). At the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar God asks Moses to conduct a census of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses counts 603,505 men able to bear arms (20 to 60 years); the tribe of Levi, however, numbering 22,300 males aged one month and older, is counted separately. Almost everything our parasha speaks of is discussed in the context of numbers. Names, placement of the people in the camp, in the hierarchy, as well as some obligations and responsibilities. Everything is in the context of numbers.

The first verse of week Haftarah reminds us about the promise given to Abraham:

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God. (Hosea 2:1)

Hosea gives the same promise to the Israelites whose God wants to remarry, rebuking them at the same time (for this one of the fundamental elements of prophetic activity) and setting conditions upon which the promise will be given again. These conditions can be summarized on one: break with the past. Doing so, Hosea also introduces one important theological concept: the Covenant seen as a marriage between God and Israel – Husband and Wife. This imagery was adopted by later prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the origins of this concept are not particularly beautiful. In the first chapter of the book God commands Hosea to marry a whore, Gomer, and to have children with her. Hosea’s acceptance of his shameful role as the husband of a whoring wife is analogical to God’s shameful status of being connected to Israel. But on the other hand it illustrates that God would not abandon Israel even if they left Him to serve false gods. It demonstrates how far God can go to restore the proper, covenantal relationship with His people.

The Torah accustomed us to a strict connection between fertility and divine blessing. That’s one of “the laws of nature” I would say and this particular “law of nature” incorporates the divine laws as well. What’s the reason for such a claim? I’m saying this because mere fertility is not enough for a people’s survival, especially if we talk about specific, ethnic or religious groups. We are not animals, our survival has always had a political aspect. We have to maintain stable societal institutions, we have to obey laws and principles to provide people with an environment in which they can grow and develop. We have to live according to a certain ideology or ethos that recognizes true values, like justice, love and peace, as well as the value of human life itself and not only the value of individual life but also the life of the community. There have been numerous tribes, ethnic and religious groups or even entire civilizations which disappeared from the face of the earth throughout history. We are one of those very few ancient peoples that did not. It is mainly because our religion has always recognized the true values, the value of life itself and has never stopped putting those values actively into practice.

I believe that both, the life of an individual and the life a community as a whole is, by default, of equal value. The community which respects this balance is the community God wants to marry or to remarry, as it is in our Haftarah; these are the people among whom His spirit would inhabit. He divorced and will divorce a community of selfish people who only take care of their individual needs and interests. He will do so not only for ethical reasons: communities like that are not sustainable over time. If they are not sustainable, they cannot fulfill their part of the covenant with God, which is, by definition, eternal. That’s one of the fundamental ideas and beliefs in our religion: we were appointed to be witnesses of the one and only God and we are to remain witnesses forever, until the end of times (whatever that means, but very very long). I also believe that God would never have married a community that constantly sacrifices the capacities and interests of its individuals on the altar of so called ‘common good’ – a community that embraced various, radical forms of collectivism and doesn’t care about individual rights.

What does it mean for an individual? It means that your life is precious, but it is finite. Life you may create is not less precious than yours – it is equally precious, by definition. The goal is to maintain a certain balance between valuing your individual self-fulfillment and valuing procreation. This balance is of course different at different stages of human life. We must obtain certain wisdom to find this balance. At the societal level we must obtain certain wisdom to find the balance between rights and dreams of an individual and the well-being of the community. This line can be and should be drawn somewhere, because both, radical individualism (that is seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of an individual) and radical collectivism (seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of the group) is harmful to human beings. Radical, thoughtless individualism hurts primarily the individuals, the society – to a lesser degree, depending how widespread it is. Radical collectivism, especially in the long run, hurts most of the individuals, thus it also hurts society itself.
Collectivism has been expressed strongly through political philosophies such as socialism, fascism, and communism. Its radical renditions existed in practice in various totalitarian systems established throughout history. They are visible and real also today. They are put in practice in countries like North Korea, islamist theocracies like Afghanistan, and perhaps to a lesser degree – China, Belarus. In the West the collectivists ideas exist in the ideologies of far-right and far-left movements.

Collectivism is also present in those forms of identity politics that put the group identity ahead of the identity of the individual. These kinds of concepts are dangerous because they may easily result in ascribing something that is called collective responsibility to certain groups in the society. I’m not denying that a phenomenon like collective responsibility may exist but we should deal with this idea very carefully. It generates a number of controversies on many levels: metaphysical, moral, psychological and sociological. The situation becomes even worse when in the name of the collective responsibility we drop the idea of individual responsibility. This makes any form of justice impossible because justice is inextricably linked to individual responsibility. As Jews, we know too well how ascribing collective responsibility works in practice and how tragic the consequences might be. We should be the first to reject these patterns of thinking, or at least approach them with deep criticism.

The threats that stem from all these radical concepts are never gone and will never be gone. It’s a direct consequence of human freedom: freedom of thought, speech, action and the freedom of existential self-defining. Knowing all of that we should, however, distance ourselves, not only practically, but also ideologically, from all the forms of these concepts: radical collectivism, various forms of self-centeredness, narcissism, as well as from its supposedly reasonable justifications. We should distance ourselves also from group forms of self-centeredness and narcissism, which are very common in our societies today and only fuel partisanship and deepen divisions. All beliefs like: “only people from my group are really smart, intelligent and educated, all other people (especially those from a group I hate) are either crazy, dumb or uneducated” fell into this category.

God loves us equally as individuals and as a community. He is in charge of solving conflicts of human interests. His actions might be delayed, but they are always just. Whenever you feel that as a result of those conflicts you were treated unjustly, by people or even by God himself, one should have patience and trust that justice will come. It does not mean that you should just wait passively and not actively repair the situation. On the contrary, you should take action if you feel it’s warranted. But being patient and having trust in the Supreme Judge first makes subsequent actions more thoughtful, more reasonable and more balanced, which is always necessary in pursuing justice.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA


Plemiona Izraela: gałęzie jednego drzewa czy pręty „boskiego gniewu”?

Refleksja nad paraszą Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

Porcja Tory na ten tydzień zaczyna się od słów, które z pozoru nie wyróżniają się niczym szczególnym:

„I oświadczył Mojżesz naczelnikom pokoleń Israela, i rzekł: Oto, co rozkazał Wiekuisty!” (Lb 30, 2, tłum I. Cylkow).

Dalej następuje wykładnia praw dotyczących składania przysiąg, a następnie mamy historię wyprawy wojennej mającej na celu odwet na Midianitach. Mojżesz gniewa się na dowódców wojsk Izraela za to, że nie byli wystarczająco bezwzględni w postępowaniu z wrogiem. W konsekwencji poucza ich, jak należało się z owym wrogiem rozprawić.

W dzisiejszej refleksji skupimy się na tym problemie, jednakże nie tyle z perspektywy historycznej, lecz, nazwijmy to, lingwistycznej. Otóż w Torze znajdujemy zasadniczo dwa różne słowa na określenie „plemion Izraela”. Jedno to szewet (l.m. szewatim), drugie to mate (l.m. matot). I podczas gdy zarówno szewet i mate oznaczają „gałąź”, oba też oznaczają „kij” albo „pręt”. W tym tkwi głębsze znaczenie obu tych nazw: w niektórych przypadkach Tora odnosi się do nas jako do „gałęzi”, podkreślając tym samym konieczność elastyczności i ustępliwości w życiu. W innych kontekstach Tora, używając tych samych określeń, nazywa nas „prętami”, podkreślając przy tym potrzebę zdecydowania i determinacji w realizacji naszej misji jako „ludu świętego” i „światła dla narodów’. Oba określenia znajdujemy np. w wersecie Księgi Izajasza, w której to właśnie Bóg, ustami proroka, oboma określa króla Asyrii:

„Ach, ten Asyryjczyk, rózga (szewet) mego gniewu i bicz (mate) w mocy mej zapalczywości!” (Iz 10, 5),

którego wyznaczył, by dokonał sprawiedliwego sądu nad nieposłusznym narodem Izraela.

Tym samym owa dwuznaczność implikuje dwojakie rozumienie pojęcia „plemienia”, tak samo, jak dwojakie jest rozumienie hebrajskiego słowa Isra-El, które oznacza jednocześnie „walczący z Bogiem” (znaczenie dosłowne) jak i „naród wybrany”. Dwuznaczność określenia Isra-El określa dwie formy naszej relacji z Bogiem – na przemian Mu służymy i się z nim spieramy – natomiast dwuznaczność pojęć szewet i mate określa formy naszej relacji z ludźmi innych narodów i religii, wobec których, zależnie od sytuacji, powinniśmy być raz ugodowi i ustępliwi, innym razem zaś stanowczy i nieugięci.

Prawdziwa mądrość tkwi w umiejętności rozpoznania obu rodzajów sytuacji i odpowiedzeniu sobie na pytanie, kiedy powinniśmy postępować z innymi ugodowo i łagodnie, jak gałąź uginająca się pod naporem wiatru, kiedy zaś stanowczo i bezkompromisowo, jak pręt czy drąg, który przed nikim ani niczym się nie ugina. W okazywaniu innym pokory i skromności nie tkwi zasadniczo nic złego, tak długo, jak owa druga strona jest przyjaźnie do nas nastawiona. Problem pojawia się wówczas, gdy owa druga strona – zbiorowość ludzka czy pojedyncza osoba – świadomie wykorzystuje naszą ugodowość lub wręcz na niej żeruje. W tym wszystkim zawiera się pewna teoria negocjacji i odpowiedź na pytanie, czy mają być one „twarde” czy może „miękkie”. By zdecydować o tym, jakie negocjacje mamy prowadzić, musimy bacznie obserwować zachowanie i intencje ludzi, z którymi przyszło nam toczyć spór. Rozwiązanie, które tu zaproponuję, jest dosyć proste i brzmi następująco: tak długo, jak widzimy w reakcjach i działaniach innych pokojowe intencje (które nie zawsze mogą być dla nas doraźnie korzystne, ale np. obliczone na wspólne dobro lub inny, głębszy cel), powinniśmy raczej przyjmować strategię wobec innych przyjazną. Jeśli jednakże widzimy, że strategia drugiej strony ma na celu wyłącznie jej własny interes, realizowany świadomie kosztem naszego, lub dostrzegamy wręcz jawną wrogość wobec nas, powinniśmy zasadniczo pozostać w naszych działaniach stanowczy i nieugięci. Tylko wówczas, gdy posiądziemy ową mądrość widzenia i rozróżniania, będziemy w stanie zbalansować nasze działania tak, ażeby torować drogę najwyższej, boskiej sprawiedliwości.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski


Tribes of Israel: Branches of One Tree or Rods of „Divine Fury”?

Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

The opening words of this week’s Torah portion may not seem like an extraordinary statement at first sight:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the [Eternal] has commanded…” (Numbers 30:2.)

Next we find an explanation of the laws regarding making vows, after which we read about a military expedition aimed at taking revenge against the Midianites. Moses is angry at the commanders of the Israelite army for not being ruthless enough in their dealings with the enemy. As a result he instructs them how they should have dealt with that enemy.

In today’s reflection I’d like to focus on this problem, but not so much from a historical perspective, but rather from a somewhat more linguistic standpoint. It turns out that the Torah uses two different words to describe the “tribes of Israel”. One of them is shevet (plural: shevatim), whereas the second one is mate (plural matot). And while both shevet and mate mean “branch”, both can also mean “stick” or “rod”. This duality reflects a deeper meaning of these two names: in some cases the Torah refers to us as a “branch”, thus emphasizing the necessity to be flexible and pliant in our life. But in other contexts the Torah uses the word “rods” to describe the same concept, thus emphasizing the need to exhibit firmness and determination as we carry out our mission of being the “holy people” and a “light for the nations”. Both of these terms can be found for example in a verse from the Book of Isaiah, in which it is indeed God Himself who through the mouth of the prophet uses  both of these terms to describe the King of Assyria,

“Ha! Assyria, rod (shevet) of My anger, in whose hand, as a staff (mate), is My fury!” (Isaiah 10:5),whom He appoints to pass a just judgment on the disobedient people of Israel.

Thus this ambiguity implies a two-fold understanding of the concept of a “tribe”, just as there is a dual understanding of the Hebrew term “Isra-El”, which means both “wrestling with God” (the literal meaning) as well as  “the chosen people”. The ambiguity of the expression “Isra-El” corresponds to the two forms of our relationship with God – we alternately serve Him and engage in disputes with Him, whereas the ambiguity of the terms shevet and mate sheds some light on the character of our relationship with members of other nations and religions, towards whom, depending on the circumstances, we should at times display a conciliatory and pliant attitude, whereas on other occasions be firm and unyielding.

True wisdom lies in the ability to distinguish between these two types of situations and in being able to recognize when we should be conciliatory and lenient towards others, just like a branch bending under the pressure of the wind, and when on the other hand we should act in a firm and uncompromising way, like a rod or a stick, not yielding to anyone nor to anything. In principle there is nothing wrong with showing others humility and modesty, as long as the other side is also displaying a friendly attitude towards us. A problem arises when that other side – a community of people or an individual person – deliberately takes advantage of our conciliatory approach or simply starts to exploit it. All this encompasses a certain theory of negotiations as well as answering the question whether we should display a “hard” or perhaps “soft” approach in such negotiations. In order to decide which of these two options to employ, we must pay close attention to the behavior and the motives of the people with whom we happen to be engaged in a conflict. The solution which I’d like to propose here is quite simple and it suggests the following stance: as long as we perceive the reactions and actions of others as a sign of their peaceful intentions – even if these actions might not always be beneficial for us in the short term, but their aim is for example achieving a certain common good or another, deeper objective), in such cases we should exhibit a friendly approach towards the other side.  However, if we see that the other side’s strategy is to look solely after its own best interests, which are being deliberately protected at the expense of our own good, or if we notice an openly hostile approach towards us, we should essentially keep on upholding a firm and unyielding stance. Only once we acquire this wisdom of seeing and discerning will we be able to adjust our actions in a way that will enable us to pave the way for the supreme, Divine justice.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka


O balansie sił dobra i zła.

Refleksja nad paraszą Pinchas

Menachem Mirski

Na samym początku porcji Tory przeznaczonej na ten tydzień Bóg nagradza Pinchasa, wnuka Aarona, za swój akt gorliwości mający swój wyraz w zabiciu księcia Symeonitów Zimriego i jego kochanki Kozbi, księżniczki Midianitów. W ramach owej nagrody, Bóg udziela Pinachasowi przymierza pokoju i włącza go do rodu kapłańskiego na wieczność (co wedle Rashiego nie było dotychczas wcześniej jego udziałem; Pinchas nie wziął udziału w kapłańskim namaszczeniu Aarona i jego synów (Szemot/Exodus 28:40-41)).

Wątek zabójstwa dokonanego przez Pinchasa na Zimrim i jego kochance jest często przedstawiany jako impulsywny akt samosądu, co czyni ten tekst dość problematycznym dla naszej tradycji. Ów czyn, w oczach współczesnego człowieka wygląda jak brutalne, bezwzględne morderstwo, dokonane przez (religijnego) fanatyka, i w taki sposób podobny akt zostałby potraktowany w większości systemów prawnych współczesnego świata. Nie jest to też bynajmniej wyłącznie współczesna optyka – historia ta trapiła już rabinów. Gwałtowna, samowolna, pozasądowa egzekucja Zimriego i Kozbi jest sprzeczna z podstawowymi rabinicznymi zasadami sprawiedliwości, zwłaszcza w odniesieniu do kwestii tak poważnej, jak kara śmierci.

Czy ta optyka jest jednak słuszna względem omawianej przez nas historii? Warto zwrócić uwagę na to, co wedle biblijnego tekstu wydarzyło się zanim Pinchas dokonał swojego czynu.

Otóż naród Izraela, przebywając w Szittim, zaczyna uprawiać nierząd z midianickimi kobietami. (Księga Liczb/Bamidbar 25:1). W tekście hebrajskim mamy czasownik liznot, co w bardziej eufemistycznych tłumaczeniach przełożone jest jako uprawiać nierząd (mistrzostwem eufemizmu jest tutaj przekład Cylkowa: zalecać się). Angielskie tłumaczenie Jewish Publication Society używa słowa ‘whoring’ (co możemy na polski przetłumaczyć, również eufemistycznie, jako ‘prostytuowanie się’). Jest też mowa o ‘narodzie’ jako podmiocie tychże ekscesów, można to więc uznać, raczej bez cienia wątpliwości, jako zjawisko masowe.

Chwilę potem Bóg nakazuje Mojżeszowi dokonać publicznej egzekucji (prawdopodobnie przez nabicie na pal) wszystkich obecnych przywódców Izraela (hebr. et kol roszej ha’am, Księga Liczb/Bamidbar 25:4) co obrazuje stopień zepsucia izraelskiego społeczeństwa. Następny werset sugeruje, że Mojżesz stara się zmienić i złagodzić wyrok boski, ograniczając jego zastosowanie jedynie do spośród Izraelitów, którzy bezpośrednio zaangażowali się w nierząd i służbę obcemu bóstwu. Chwilę potem Zimri, wraz ze swoją kochanką, ostentacyjnie pojawiają się przed Namiotem Spotkania, przed którym Mojżesz, wraz z grupą Izraelitów, płaczą pogrążeni w rozpaczy. Stamtąd udają się do pobliskiego namiotu, w wiadomym celu. W tym momencie wkracza Pinchas i zabija ich oboje w namiocie.

Mamy więc do czynienia z sytuacją dość ekstremalną. Z tych, jak również kilku innych powodów (o których mowa poniżej) uważam, iż ujęcie czynu Pinchasa jako impulsywnego samosądu nie jest całkiem trafne, jest poważnym uproszczeniem. Istnieje bowiem kontekst prawny dla jego działania – wyrok śmierci wydany przez samego Wiekuistego, na odpowiedzialnych za całą zaistniałą sytuację – a także kontekst uzasadniający samo działanie – względnie łagodna postawa samego Mojżesza wobec zaistniałej sytuacji. Dlatego Pinchas zostaje nagrodzony przez Boga za swoją religijną gorliwość, bowiem wiele w tej historii wskazuje na to, że to właśnie on, jako pierwszy, prawidłowo wypełnił boski dekret.

I choć może się to nam, współczesnym, wydawać barbarzyńskie, Pinchas, poprzez swój czyn odpokutował za grzechy Izraela. Wziął na siebie nie tylko winę za dokonanie czegoś z zasady zabronionego, lecz także odpowiedzialność za zmianę biegu rzeczy, który, jeśli nie powstrzymany, doprowadziłby prędzej czy później do katastrofy całej społeczności. Oczywiście nie wiemy na pewno, jakby potoczyła się ta historia, gdyby nie to zabójstwo, jednakże odpowiedź, jaką podaje nam sama Tora jest właśnie taka – poprzez dokonanie sądu nad Zimrim, Pinchas wstrzymał gniew Boży, który miał się rozlać na całą społeczność ludu wybranego. (Księga Liczb/Bamidbar 25:11-13)

Historia z naszej paraszy jest jeszcze jedną (choć dość radykalną w treści) opowieścią o tym, że naprawa rzeczywistości społecznej, czy to w wymiarze mikro czy marko, zwykle nie jest rzeczą miłą, przyjemną czy sympatyczna. Historia ta stawia też wiele pytań, np. co może zrobić jednostka, która zachowała moralność, trzeźwość umysłu w sytuacji, gdy widzi ona czarno na białym, iż całą społeczność, w której żyje, ogarnął obłęd? Iść i przekonywać, nauczać i nawracać? Znosić szyderstwa i upokorzenia? Czy Pinchas (lub ktokolwiek inny) był w stanie zorganizować “uczciwy proces” ludziom pogrążającym społeczeństwo w rozkładzie w sytuacji, gdy Bóg skazał już na śmierć elitę tego samego społeczeństwa, za te same (w domyśle) grzechy? Czy byłby możliwy jakikolwiek uczciwy proces w rzeczywistości, którą opisuje nasza historia? Przenosząc kwestię na współczesny grunt możemy zapytać: czy istnieje szansa na uczciwy proces w społeczeństwie, w którym jego przywódcy, w tym wymiar sprawiedliwości, są całkowicie skorumpowani i np. współpracują z mafią?

Niestety, metody naprawy społeczeństwa należy dostosować do stopnia szaleństwa, w którym się ono pogrążyło. A społeczeństwa ludzkie cyklicznie pogrążają się w różnego rodzaju obłędach. Wiemy o tym doskonale z naszej ludzkiej historii i niewiele wskazuje na to, że sytuacja ta kiedykolwiek ulegnie radykalnej przemianie.

Naprawianie zła, moralnego i społecznego zepsucia jest owszem możliwe łagodniejszymi środkami, ale jest to zależne od balansu pomiędzy siłami dobra i zła. W sytuacji, gdy znacząca przewaga mocy znajduje się po stronie dobra, metody – nazwijmy to – “łagodne” mają swoją skuteczność. Jeśli moc jest po naszej stronie, możemy wpływać na ludzi czyniących zło upomnieniami, łagodnymi karami itd. bowiem są oni otoczeni przez siły dobra i przystosowanie się do reguł sprawiedliwości leży w ich interesie, jeśli nie chcą oni zmienić swojego życia w piekło. W takich sytuacjach także zapłata dobrem za zło ma szansę zadziałać. Sytuacja komplikuje się, gdy zmienia się balans sił, na bardziej wyrównany, jak na przykład w konfliktach rodzinnych czy małżeńskich, w których jedna ze stron definitywnie znalazła się po ciemnej stronie mocy (alkoholizm, przestępczość, patologiczna niewierność itp.). Wówczas łagodne metody tracą swoją moc i potrzebne jest zastosowanie bardziej radykalnych, jak rozwód czy separacja. W sytuacjach, w których zdecydowana przewaga mocy jest po stronie zła, żadne łagodne, pokojowe metody nie działają; jednostki, które usiłują je praktykować zostają zwykle męczennikami. Dlatego zanim ocenimy czyjeś postępowanie w sytuacjach ekstremalnych, przyjrzyjmy się dokładnie balansowi zewnętrznych i wewnętrznych sił dobra i zła, w które dana jednostka jest w swoim postępowaniu uwikłana.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski



On the Balance Between Good and Evil Forces. Thoughts on Parasha Pinchas

Menachem Mirski

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion God rewards Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, for his zealous act – namely for killing the prince of the Simeonites Zimri and his lover Cozbi, a Midianite princess. As part of this reward God endows Pinchas with the covenant of peace and includes him in the priestly line for eternity (According to Rashi he was not part of it before; Pinchas did not take part in the priestly anointment of Aaron and his sons [Shemot/Exodus 28:40-41.])

Pinchas’ killing of Zimri and his lover is often portrayed as an impulsive act of “mob law”, which makes this text quite problematic for our tradition. In the eyes of a modern person that act looks like a brutal, ruthless murder, carried out by a (religious) fanatic, and that is exactly how a similar act would be treated in most judicial systems in the modern world. In fact, this is not only a contemporary way of looking at it – this story was already viewed as challenging by the rabbis. Zimri’s and Cozbi’s violent, willful execution without due process of law contradicts the fundamental rabbinic principals of justice, especially when it involves such a serious issue as the death penalty.

But is this actually the correct way of looking at this story? It’s worth to take a look at what happened – according to the Biblical text – before Pinchas carried out his act.

As it turns out, the people of Israel, as they were staying in Shittim, start to engage in harlotry with Midianite women (Numbers/Bamidbar 25:1.) In the Hebrew text we have the verb liznot, which in more euphemistic translations is rendered as “commit harlotry” (the best euphemism can be found in Cylkow’s translation: “they courted them”.) In the English translation of the Jewish Publication Society the word “whoring” is used (which in Polish could be translated, equally euphemistically, with a word meaning “to engage in prostitution”.) The text also says that it was the “nation” who was engaging in these excesses, so we can assume without any trace of doubt that it was a mass scale activity.

Shortly after that God orders Moses to carry out a public execution (probably by impalement) of all the current Israelite leaders) (Hebr. et kol roshei ha’am, Numbers/Bamidbar 25:4), which shows the scale of corruption in the Israelite society. The next verse suggests that Moses is trying to change and soften God’s decree by limiting it only to those Israelites who directly engaged in harlotry and who served a foreign deity. Shortly after that Zimri, along with his lover, appear ostentatiously before the Tent of Meeting, in front of which Moses with a group of Israelites are weeping in despair. Then they go to a nearby tent to do you-know- what. This is when Pinchas appears and kills them both in the tent.

As we can see, we are dealing with quite an extreme situation. For this reason, as well as for several other ones (which I discuss below) I believe that viewing Pinchas’ action as an impulsive act of “mob law” is not entirely correct and it’s a serious simplification. For his action takes place in a certain legal context – the death sentence issued by the Eternal Himself for those responsible for this whole situation – and there are also certain circumstances justifying the action itself – namely the relatively lenient stance of Moses towards this whole situation. This is why Pinchas is being rewarded by God for his religious zealotry, since a lot in this story points to the fact that he was indeed the first one to appropriately carry out the Divine decree.

And while to us, modern people, this might seem barbaric, Pinchas through his actions in fact atoned for Israel’s sins. Not only did he take upon himself the blame for doing something which in principle is prohibited, but he also took responsibility for changing the course of events, which, if no one had stopped it, sooner or later would have led to a catastrophe for the entire society. Of course we don’t know for sure how this story would have turned out if it hadn’t been for this murder, but the answer which the Torah itself gives us is exactly this – that by carrying out this act of “mob law” on Zimri Pinchas put an end to God’s wrath, which otherwise was going to spill over the entire society of the chosen people. (Numbers/Bamidbar 25:11-13.)

The story we read in our Parasha is yet another (albeit quite radical in its content) story about how fixing the state of our societies – whether on a micro- or macro-scale – is usually not a nice, pleasant and likable task. This story also provokes many questions – for example, what can an individual who has maintained their morality and a clear mind do in a situation when they see with absolute certainty that the entire society they live in has succumbed to madness? Should they go out and try to convince, teach and change people’s minds? Should they withstand derision and humiliation? Would Pinchas (or anyone else) be able to arrange an “honest trial” for the people who were plunging the society into decay, given that God has already sentenced to death the elite of this very society for the same (as we can assume) sins? Would any kind of honest trial be possible in the circumstances which are being described in our story?  To portray this issue in contemporary terms, we could ask: Is there a chance for an honest trial in a society whose leaders, including the judiciary branch, are utterly corrupt and for example collaborate with the mafia?

Unfortunately, the methods used to repair a society must match the level of madness that society has succumbed to. And human societies cyclically plunge into different kinds of madness. We know this perfectly well from our human history and there is not much to suggest that this situation will ever radically change.

Fighting evil and moral and social decay is certainly possible with the use of less radical measures, but this depends on the balance between good and evil forces. If a significant majority of force is on the side of good, then – let’s call them “gentle” – methods can be effective. If the force is on our side, we can influence people who are doing evil things by means of admonishments, lenient punishments and so on, since they are surrounded by the forces of good and adapting to the principles of justice is in their best interest if they don’t want their lives to turn into hell. In such cases repaying evil with good also has a chance to work. The situation gets more complicated when the balance of forces shifts and becomes more equal, like for example in family or marital conflicts, when one side has definitively found themselves on the dark side of force (in case of alcoholism, crimes, pathological infidelity and so on.) In such situations gentle methods lose their power and more radical solutions, such as divorce or separation, need to be implemented. If the significant majority of force is on the side of evil, then no gentle, peaceful methods will ever work; the individuals who try to use them usually become martyrs. That’s why, before we judge the way someone acts in extreme situations, let’s first take a close look at the balance of the external and internal forces of good and evil in which that given individual is entangled as they carry out their actions.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka