Weekly Torah Commentary — Pinchas July 11, 2014

Numbers/Badmidbar 25:10 – 30:1

Since this week’s Torah reading begins in the middle of a story, let’s review what happened in last week’s portion, Balak. Many of the Israelite men were seduced by Moabite women and susequently worshipped idols. One of the leaders of the men who were seduced, Zimri, of the tribe of Shimon, decided to publicly flaunt his immorality and proceeded to indulge his lust in full view of Moshe and the people.  God responded with a plague, and 24,000 Jewish men, who had shared in the debauchery, died. Pinchas could not tolerate Zimri’s brazen immorality. He promptly killed Zimri and the woman, Kozbi, a Moabite princess.  Immediately afterwards, the plague ceased.

God begins this week’s portion saying to Moshe, “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Ahron, the Priest, turned back my fury from the Jewish nation when he zealously avenged my vengeance among them. This is why I did not consume the Jewish nation in My vengeance. Therefore, say: Behold, I give him (Pinchas) My covenant of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:10-12)

The Torah tells us that God administers reward and punishment ‘measure for measure.’ The punishment or reward must fit the crime or good deed. However, it seems strange at first reading that Pinchas’ zealous act is rewarded with peace. Is that measure for measure? And do we generally think of a zealot as a ‘peaceful’ person?

As we read and ponder this particular passage of the Torah, Israel is at war in Gaza.  How fascinating that it should so happen that this is the reading for this Shabbat for in this Torah portion God conveys a fundamental lesson about war and peace.

Whether we like it or not, at times wars are necessary. There is such a thing as a justified war. The wise King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:8 states, “There is a time for war.”

God is saying to Moshe, “Tell Pinchas that his zealousness yields peace.” Peace is not defined as a passive lack of war.  Peace is a state of being in which there is workable a relationship, a way of dealing with each other. It isn’t just that I don’t bother you and you don’t bother me; that’s not peace. It’s that we live and work together in a mutually beneficial manner. Peace is a positive, vibrant state; not simply the absence of armed (or verbal) conflict.  Consider, for example, the ‘Cold War’.

In Hebrew, the word for peace, shalom, is derived from the root shalem, which means whole or complete. Peace is a cooperative relationship, where both parties respect each other and help each other as needed. Two people who hate each other and refuse to speak to each other, can hardly be described as being at peace.  They may never fight verbally or otherwise but there is hardly a condition of peace between them.  Marital harmony and domestic tranquility is not defined simply by the lack of screaming and yelling in the house. Rather, shalom bayit (peace in the home) is maintained when both spouses genuinely care about each other, share their joys, encourage each other in times of distress and live in harmony.  This is the difference between a “peace treaty” and a “cease-fire”.

Real peace is active and positive engagement between two people or two nations. The work of achieving peace is precisely to remove whatever impedes the development of true peace between the parties involved. That is why Pinchas, through his zealous act, actually created peace. Pinchas stopped the plague against the Jewish people by destroying the leader who was responsible for the conflict and ensuing destruction and through his violent act of war brought peace.

It would be wonderful if it were always possible to remove the causes of disunity and conflict by non-violent means.  The truth is – however much we deplore violence – that it simply is not always possible to achieve true peace by non-violent procedures.

Does anyone seriously think that the Nazis could have been dealt with non-violently? Could Osama bin Laden have been “negotiated” into a positive and cooperative attitude towards the West?

Ariel Sharon, z”l, always said that the path to peace in the Middle East must begin with decisive military action against the terrorist infrastructure. Only when violence, as an option, is rooted out can peace be achieved.

Here’s the crux of the matter: if ALL the peoples of the world, ALL the nations’ leaders, were committed to achieving genuine peace, then perhaps pacifism would be a viable movement.This is not the case.  When instead one side is determined to obliterate the other by whatever means, we must, like Pinchas, destroy that which creates tensions between people in order to bring peace.

In the words of one of our Rabbis in Jerusalem, “In the real world, wars usually bring ultimate peace, not pacifists.”

How incredibly appropriate that THIS is the Torah reading for this very weekend.  May God give wisdom, courage and stamina to our leaders and soldiers at this time and may we seek for REAL peace.

In Tune with Torah this week = in our personal lives, are there relationships of true peace or only ‘cease-fires’?  What can we do to achieve real peace in our families and communities?

Shabbat Shalom



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