At the end of last week’s Torah portion we are informed of a major crisis that developed among the children of Israel. Lured by Moabite women, many of Israel’s men are enticed into illicit behavior. Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, took for himself Cozbi, a Moabite princess, into his tent to have sexual relations with her in a public challenge to Moses. The situation is so out of control that even Moses is paralyzed, unsure how to react.
At this point, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, respectfully requests permission of Moses to act, after reminding him of what the Torah says regarding such behavior. Alone, Pinchas enters the tent of Zimri and slays him and Cozbi. The plague which had begun to sweep through the camp is immediately halted as a result of Pinchas’ action.
As a reward for his initiative, Pinchas is granted a ‘covenant of peace’ from Hashem. Since nowhere else in Torah is an individual rewarded with a ‘covenant of peace’, we necessarily assume that this has deep significance but we also wonder why such a reward is given to a man who just murdered two people! Only by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture can we make sense of this event.
Pinchas’ action not only put an immediate end to a deadly plague that threatened to destroy the entire people of Israel, he single-handedly caused a profound change in the relationship between Hashem and His people. During the previous years in the desert, the children of Israel had repeatedly complained to Moses and rebelled against Hashem. After this singular event – Pinchas’ bold action – never again in the rest of the Torah is there a record of even one disagreement between Hashem and the people of Israel!! What Pinchas did accomplished far more than just stopping the plague. What do we learn from this unusual situation?
Peace between individuals and nations can sometimes be achieved through negotiations, meaningful conversations and other nonviolent means. Sometimes, however, only a clearly drawn ‘line in the sand’ convinces an adversary to make peace and that ‘line in the sand’ can lead to the outbreak of war for the purpose of achieving peace in the end. Yet, even in recognizing this as a historical reality, it is less than ideal and we mourn over the sufferings of war and its violence.
Right within the text we find a hint that even in Hashem’s conferring a covenant of peace on Pinchas, it is nevertheless an incomplete or imperfect peace.
In the Hebrew text, the word ‘shalom’ is written with a broken VAV. It has a small open space dividing the top of the letter from the bottom, something that occurs nowhere else in all of the Torah. Whenever we find something like this that is unusual, we know there is a message to be discovered. In this case, the broken ‘vav’ conveys to us the principle that PERFECT peace will only come with Mashiach’s reign over the earth. Until that time, there will be a measure of incompleteness in any ‘covenant’ or agreement of peace, whether between nations or between individuals.
Although individually, we may experience true inner peace in our lives and/or achieve truly healthy relationships with others, no human being is able to completely maintain a life of perfect peace and tranquility throughout all of their days. The broken ‘vav’ tells us that life happens! In the midst of this world’s chaos and uncertainty, there will be moments of struggle, challenge and even defeat. The ‘vav’, whose shape reminds us of a person standing tall and erect, represents humanity’s full stature. The broken ‘vav’ of this text equally reminds us that the best of our present existence is essentially incomplete and therefore urges us to continue to pursue a deeper and stronger connection with Hashem who is THE source of all shalom!
To allude to a quote we have used before from Pirkei Avot 5:26, “The reward is commensurate with the suffering”, we can say that Pinchas was rewarded with a covenant of peace because he voluntarily performed a very difficult and unpleasant task. He put his own life on the line for the purpose of saving the nation from extinction.
One last insight into the word ‘Shalom’ alludes to the difficulty of achieving peace despite our continual striving for it. The first Hebrew letter of the word ‘shalom’ is the Shin which is shaped like a flame and represents fire. The last letter is a Mem, which appears twice in the Hebrew word for water – ‘mayim’. The two letters, Shin and Mem, are also found in the word for ‘heaven’ – shamayim. We derive from this that fire and water dwell together in peace in heaven while on earth they are incompatible. Water extinguishes fire and fire evaporates water. Our quest for peace, then, is truly the underlying passion within the soul to seek for ‘heaven on earth’. That passion will be fully realized at the revelation of Mashiach.
In Tune with Torah this week: In a few weeks we will be entering the month of Elul, the month of repentance preparatory to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It is not too early to begin looking within ourselves. If there is a relationship in need of attention, in need of healing and restoration, this Shabbat is a wonderful time to examine our own attitudes towards it and determine what steps we can take to restore peace with the other person.