There is a famous story about a man asking a rabbi about what is the deal with Talmud – the vast collection of rabbinic discussion and law completed around 600 CE? The rabbi explains that it takes a “certain type of mind” to study talmud – and asks him a few questions to see if he has the “right” type of mind.
Two men come down the same chimney and one comes out clean and one comes out dirty. One of them is going to wash – which one? The clean one or the dirty one?
The man replies, the dirty one. The rabbi says, “Not so fast. The dirty man looks at the clean one and assumes he too is clean, while the clean one looks at the dirty one and assumes he’s dirty.”
The rabbi asks the question: “Two men come down the same chimney, one clean, one dirty. Who washes?”
The man replies “You told me already! The clean man!”
The rabbi replies, “Not so fast. What if there was a mirror at the washbasin? Then the clean one would notice he was clean. So maybe neither of them would wash.”
The rabbi asks, “Two men come down the same chimney…”
The man replies, “Enough already! You’re confusing me!”
The rabbi says, “The important question is ‘How could two men come down the same chimney and one be clean and one dirty?’”
From this, we learn that asking the right questions, and asking more and more questions – that’s what’s important … And this becomes really useful. Especially when we are confronted with Torah portions like this week’s, Pinchas.
In last week’s torah portion, Balak, the Israelites are hanging out around Moab, outside the land of Israel, and too many of the men are whoring with Moabite women, and committing idol worship with the Moabite women’s god. YHWH tells Moses to gather the idol worshippers and have them killed. Moses gives the instruction to his deputies. God sends a plague. Meanwhile, a prince from the tribe of Shimon brings a Midianite princess to his companions, in the sight of Moses and the whole congregation, in front of the holy Tent of Meeting, and there they do things they should not do (their stature in their communities makes it more than an individual sin, but one that affects nations). Everyone else stands there transfixed, until Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson and Moses’ great nephew, a priest, takes a spear and kills the couple, with perfect aim, in the belly—or in some translations, their sex organs. The plague God sent, which killed 24,000, is over.
And thus ended last week’s torah portion. We pick up this week, with the aftermath, in Parashat Pinchas. God tells Moses that it was on account of Pinchas’ action – the stabbing of the couple – that God’s anger receded and God yet again spared us from annihilation. And as a result, he is going to give Pinchas “b’riti shalom” – God’s personal covenant of peace.
Whoa! Wow! What a minute! A covenant of peace for stabbing two people in front the whole community?
What is this about? Is this a good thing? Or is it fanaticism? Or is it obedience to God’s commandments? Is it defense of the community? Or is it vigilantism? And what is the effect of rewarding someone with a covenant of peace for murdering others?
Questioning this story and this result has been going on for millennia. Some commentators believe Pinchas was doing exactly the right thing. And there is a group operating right now called Phineas’ Priesthood (that’s the English for Pinchas) that exists to commit acts of violence against interracial couples, Jews and homosexuals… Is this what happens when we take the bible literally? Or the murder of doctors who perform abortions: is this what happens? And how does that compare to making it impossible for a woman to legally have an abortion by establishing the licensing requirements that have been implemented in Kansas?
The rabbis of the Talmud times were quite upset by this story (200 to 600 years after the common era), and there is evidence that this is why the action – the stabbing – is in a separate portion from the granting of the covenant of peace. They wanted to separate the story from its aftermath, because they could not condone it. They also created a tradition in the scrolls—the first five books of the Hebrew bible are traditionally a scroll on animal skins—to have a broken letter in the Hebrew word for peace – shalom – to signify their perception of the concept of violence begetting peace: a truly broken, bankrupt idea.
Modern commentators, including R. Arthur Waskow, wonder whether what Pinchas did got God’s attention enough to bring God’s wrath to a halt. God recognized that Pinchas was acting like God’s self with the plague and this was not good behavior. So one interpretation – one I am partial to – is that the covenant of peace could be seen as an acknowledgement that violence was NOT the answer, and giving in to rage is not the answer. While everyone else stood transfixed, unable to move, Pinchas made the decision to sacrifice two people to catch God’s attention and prevent the slaughter of thousands more. Is there a time when assassination or sacrificing a few lives is for the sake of the many? I bet several of us could argue this point. [I once saw a production of Julius Caesar, in which the programme asked numerous political leaders this point, with a wide range of responses.] And certainly, the death of Osama bin Laden seems to have been celebrated by many as a good thing – people celebrating wildly in the streets, and even people who object to the lack of due process do not seem to be sorry that he is gone.
This story, like so many others, can strike us on both the collective or political level at the same time it encourages us to look deep within ourselves. What are we, here and now, supposed to make of this portion? I think it has to do with how we handle our anger, and whether we think vigilante-ism is a good idea. While idol worship – think of the modern idols of greed, power, celebrity – is as deplorable as it was in the time of the Torah, what steps are justified to prevent people from worshipping at the foot of Wall Street, or Hollywood or Washington? Do we hold demonstrations, do we march on Washington, do we send letters and emails and petitions, or do we take other actions? Is the kind of murder committed by Pinchas ever acceptable?
But on a more personal level, in our own lives, how do we handle our anger, our disappointment, our frustration? Do we attack the people who we think are acting wrong? Do we yell at our children or our partners or our friends when we think they are wrong? Do we take matters into our own hands, convinced of our righteousness? Do we find better ways to try to make change? Do we sit frozen, unable to move, do we strike or do we figure out a peaceful way to get someone’s attention and get them to stop? Are we gentle or are we harsh? Which works better?
I’m sure we all have our answers, and they may change depending on the circumstances, or our mood, or the work we do on ourselves. While I sometimes feel justified in the moment to express my anger, generally upon reflection, I find that Pinchas’ way should never be my way – either in the grander ways of the world, or in the more intimate relationships with loved ones. I believe my work is to view Pinchas’ actions as a call to restraint for myself. To find better, more peaceful ways to express my outrage, my anger, my disappointment.
May we all take this story of Pinchas to reflect on the questions – what works better for ourselves? How does our behavior harm or nurture our relationships? What would our covenant of peace look like?