Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

I have met Pinchas many times. There seems indeed to be a Pinchas in almost every community I have served! He (or she) is enormously enthusiastic, deeply committed, impulsive, with a tendency to swift and extreme action that is not always thought through properly. They mean well and they know that they are doing God’s work and that God is on their side. Some of them even become rabbis or, at least, people who know that they know more than rabbis do! With the deepest respect, they can also be a pain in the backside.

Actually Pinchas himself was a pain in both the front and back side – for at the end of last week’s sidra (in Numbers 25:6-8) he gets up and on his own initiative spears a couple while they are ‘in flagrante‘ – the Israelite man through his back (he was clearly on top) and the Midianite woman through her belly. The Torah even makes a joke out of it – he goes into the ‘Kubah‘ – a word which only appears here and means a sort of large ceremonial tent – and he spears the unfortunate pair, in their terminal coitus interruptus, through the ‘Kubah‘ – a word which only appears twice in the Torah but here means stomach or belly. The provocation had been extreme – many of the Israelites, who were now living in Shittim, began to take up with the local Moabite women and even to join them in their ritual worship of ‘Baal Peor‘ – presumably the local god of the Mount Peor referred to in Numbers 23:28, where Balak and Bilaam look down on the desert. ‘Peor‘ itself means ‘wide’ or ‘open’. God is naturally angry that the Israelites are following pagan customs – joining in the ritual sacrificial meals of animals sacrificed to the idol of Baal and, especially, joining in the erotic coupling which was apparently intended to symbolise the human-divine relationship in pagan cults.

There are some brief but very violent and brutal verses dealing with the way the guilty are to be punished (25:4-5) – and then at precisely this moment an Israelite (Zimri) chooses to come very publicly, provocatively with a Midianite woman (Cozbi); It is not quite clear which tent they use for their fornication – the Israelites are sitting and wailing at the entrance to the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting – the ‘Ohel Mo’ed‘. Do this pair actually use the ‘Ohel Mo’ed‘ as the Kubah and the place for their tryst? If so they would be desecrating it – but not as much as does Pinchas who, in his zeal, murders two human beings in hot blood and thus spills human blood within the holy tent…… To put it briefly, the situation is a real mess, a crisis. And this is not counting the political fallout at the murder of a Midianite princess, a chieftain’s daughter.

Maybe this is the reason why the rabbis chose to split the Sidrot precisely here, in the middle of the narrative. To give everyone a chance to get their breath back, to wonder for a week how the story would continue next Shabbat. To calm down.

But the reaction takes one’s breath away. God says to Moses that his great-nephew (for Pinchas is a grandson of Aharon) has done a good job and everyone should be proud of him! Although he is already in the priestly line, his priestly status and that of his descendants is now guaranteed for ever. (Incidentally a Cohen is of course meant to avoid any contact with a human corpse and human blood, which would make him unclean – maybe he was able to use a long spear and avoid getting splashed?) God even says that what Pinchas has done makes him deserving of ”My covenant of Shalom” – ‘Briti Shalom’. God stops the plague.

In Chapter 26 there comes another census, the counting done this time by Eleazar, Pinchas’ father, and this time the intention is to find out how many men of military age (over 20) are available – for none of the young men were alive when Moses and Aharon had carried out the first census in the desert of Sinai – except for Caleb and Joshua. It is indeed time for a change at the top and Moses is commanded to prepare for his own ‘removal from office’ and to appoint Joshua as his successor, with the approval of Eleazar the High Priest. Eleazar succeeded Aharon and Joshua will succeed Moshe – the only difference being that Eleazar was the son of Aharon but Joshua is not related to Moses at all.

In Numbers 31:6 an Israelite army is sent to fight with the Midianites; Pinchas is sent as the first ‘military chaplain’, so to speak, ”with the holy vessels and the trumpets for the alarm in his hand.” He is not armed, this time, with any weapons, only with equipment for the rituals and for communication. Presumably it is felt that he is young and fit and will not be afraid at the sight of blood. Is this a form of promotion or demotion? It is still his father Eleazar to whom the people must bring the booty. The story is an unpleasant one and one must question what role Pinchas really plays in this.

So what is going on? What is God trying to tell Moses, and his nephew, Pinchas’ father? What is he trying to tell the people? That sitting at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and wailing about the situation is not enough, that one must DO something? Take action, even, if necessary, violent action? I think many of us feel uncomfortable with this thought. Judaism is not a form of Pacifism, we understand the need for defensive wars when necessary and it is even a ‘Milchemet Mitzvah‘ to take part in one – in this case, however, the threat against the Israelites is a spiritual one, not a physical one; their beliefs in an invisible, sole God are being challenged by exposure to the delights of pagan polytheism, to material and physical indulgence – this is a desperate situation, certainly, but does it justify a massacre? Unfortunately world history is filled with occasions where one group felt justified in massacring another group simply for holding the ‘wrong’ beliefs and this phenomenon has not yet gone away – here, in these chapters, we find to our discomfort that Jewish history – or better, ancient Israelite history – is not wholly free either of such concepts and incidents.

As Jews we have sometimes – too often – been confronted with the existential question: ‘What are you prepared to die for?’ – and many Jews faced martyrdom rather than baptism, for example. The other side of the same question would be: ‘What are you prepared to kill for?” Hopefully most of us will never be confronted with this in a concrete sense but I recently had a debate with a worshipper in Berlin who did not approve of a prayer for the Israel Defence Forces in the synagogue – ”You might just as well go back to blessing cannons!” he said. I disagreed. There are, at this moment, young men and women whose duty it is to protect and defend – if necessary, and under strict controls and conditions, with violence, with weapons, so that others can continue to live their lives as Jews in (relative) peace. Not because the others necessarily want us to adopt their religion, but because they want us to abandon our own – or see no reason why we should live if we have our specific religion. It is a nasty problem and so far it shows no sign of going away and we see the beginnings already back in the Bible.

Pinchas is NOT a role model for us all but he is a man who takes the initiative to do what he considers to be the right thing. This, at least, we should respect, even if we find his methods too extreme for more ‘normal’ times.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild