Sunday, July 18, 2010

Dvar Pinchas 5770

Morgan and I spent a week in Jerusalem last year, and we have since lamented getting on the plane back on multiple occasions. For the most part I felt safer there than I ever do in Minnesota. Like New York, Jerusalem lacks the small town duplicity on which Garrison Keillor and Howard Mohr have built their careers. But I did have one moment of great apprehension when I was there.

It was in the cool of the evening, and I was headed for the Kotel with Chaim Stern’s Paths of Faith tucked underneath my arm. It was a beautiful walk, and I could smell pretzels baking just outside Robinson’s Arch. I passed easily through security and onto the plaza. Yeshivot tower over the Kotel, and everywhere were bochurs davvening ma’ariv out of the Artscroll siddurs that positively littered the place, and as for me I pulled out Stern, and I too davenned ma’ariv. With the matriarchs. In editing “Paths” Rabbi Stern zt”l did not miss a chance to pair the word “avot” with “imahot.” And I knew that if I was overheard uttering them, well, things would not necessarily go well for me. This did not stop me from praying aloud, even in this place of zealots, because I believe that our willingness to utter prayer aloud and put it into the world is one of the things that makes it efficacious. What I felt was a sacred fear, a quiet certainty that this recognition of the personhood of half of humanity was a necessary thing to bring to the men’s side of the Kotel.

And so we come to the verse which gives this week’s Parsha its name.

פִּֽינְחָס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־אַֽהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹֽא־כִלִּיתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי:

Pinchas son of El’azar, son of Aaron the priest has diverted my anger from upon the children of Israel; by his zeal [turned] my zeal from among them so I have not made an end of the children of Israel in my jealousy(Num 25:11).

Pinchas had it easy. When the Shimonite Zimri brought the Midianite Cozbi into the tent, Pinchas knew he was looking at a capital crime for which a verdict and a sentence had been handed down. By acting upon it, he saved the people from annihilation. Whether the crime was “cohabiting with a heathen woman,” as is suggested in the Talmud (BT Sanh. 81b-82a), or the violation of the tabernacle, as Richard Elliott Friedman suggests(Friedman, 513), Pinchas knew what action he had to take, and that he took that action for the sake of saving the Israelites is argued by R. Aharon Kotler:

Pinchas actually performed a kindness resembling the merciful deeds of his father Aaron. By slaying Zimri, he rescued the entire people from death at the hands of Heaven, for they were all guilty of tolerating evil in their midst.(Weissman, 358)

It’s a nice drash, the sort that one comes up with when one feels that something reprehensible has taken place, but the event has been condoned by God. It has the feel of rationalization, because this extra-judicial killing is very disconcerting to a tradition that prides itself on the difficulty with which it can arrive at a death penalty. Our sages of blessed memory struggle with this. The Mishnah states:


But what we find in the Gemara would appear to render this a descriptive rather than a prescriptive statement, for

Rabbah b. Bar Hana said in R. Johanan's name: If [a zealot] comes to take counsel [whether to punish the transgressors enumerated in the Mishnah], we do not instruct him to do so. What is more, had Zimri forsaken his mistress and Phinehas slain him, Phinehas would have been executed on his account; and had Zimri turned upon Phinehas and slain him, he would not have been executed, since Phinehas was a pursuer [seeking to take his life].(BT Sanh. 82a)

In other words, if a zealot acts, it will be without the consent of the sages. The Mishnah, thus, is prevented from rising to the level of practical law. Moreover, unless the act the zealot is responding to remains uninterrupted, the zealot runs the risk of execution by order of the Sanhedrin, but the transgressor does not. In the case where the transgressor is not “punished by zealots,” however the Gemara provides a prooftext from Malachi that God will deal with it:

The Lord will cut off the men that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the Lord of Hosts. (Malachi 2:12).

The overall impression is that the sages would prefer that those who commit the transgressions described in the Mishnah receive their punishment from God rather than man. This solution, however, does not address the anxiety, expressed by Rav Kotler above, that God’s punishment might prove to be communal rather than individual. The problem is that, all too often, communal punishment from heaven is truly in the eye of the beholder, and such differences in perception lead to infighting within the Jewish community. This kind of tension can be seen when Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, says in a shiur

[A woman] needs to take care not to lay tefillin. There are stupid women who come to the Western Wall, don tallit and pray. They are idiots, they want equality, their desire is not for the sake of heaven. It is necessary to denounce them and to be wary(אטינגר, my translation).

Rav Yosef’s language seems to compare the Women of the Wall to Korach and his company, alluding to that controversy which is not for the sake of heaven. What’s worse, is there may even be in here an actual call to violence. The word in his speech which I have here rendered as “denounce” is “להוקיע.” To an audience that is literate in both Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew, it is a dangerous double entendre, being the very same verb that is used to describe the punishment that is to be meted out to the communal leaders who had attached themselves to Baal Peor, as is written:

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת־כָּל־רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַיהוָֹה נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף־יְהוָֹה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל
Adonai said to Moses, take all the heads of the people and hang (הוֹקַע) them for Adonai opposite the sun so the fury of Adonai’s anger will be averted from Israel. (Num. 25:4)

Brown, Driver and Briggs state that הוקע, the hif’il imperative of יקע is “some solemn form of execution, but mng uncertain.” In Numbers Rabbah on this verse, however, Rabban Judan is quite certain of the meaning, explaining the punishment using the word תלה, meaning hung(Numbers R. 20:23).

Given an audience who would not only recognize the biblical meaning of the word, but would also understand it as an allusion to this very event in which all Israel was endangered, and saved by a zealot, we can see clearly how this utterance can result first in the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel for - I forget, was it leining from a sefer torah, or intent to lein from a sefer Torah? - to the assault of Noa Raz at a Beer Sheva bus stop for sporting strap marks from having laid tefillin.

The reward for zealotry that our parsha opens with strikes me not so much as troubling as ambiguous. Pinchas is essentially assigned the position of warrior-priest, chaplain to the army that will avenge the matter of Baal peor, and the only Levite to serve in this campaign. It is as if the Holy Blessed One looked upon him and said, “this is how you want to be, let’s put you where you can channel that energy.” It is a matching of talent to career more than it is a reward. It is also an expression by God that Pinchas, and the behavior he exhibits, must be taken out of the mainstream and sanctified within the priesthood, in order to contain this sort of recklessness.

And yet, we cannot let ourselves off the hook this easily, for there is another story that is told about Pinchas in the Talmud: that while Moses and the Elders were standing around debating whether Zimri and Cozbi were committing a capital offense, it was then that Pinchas took up his spear and acted(Sanh. 82a). With too much talk, too much deliberation, the leaders of the people stood idly by while a zealot made history committing what should have been a capital crime. There are moments in life where it is absolutely vital that we act in accordance with our consciences, because if we spend too much time on the sidelines of history second guessing ourselves, we will let the Pinchases of the world write our history.

Works Cited

Brown, Francis The Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999.

Friedman, Richard. Commentary on the Torah. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003.

Kantrowitz, David, Judaic Classics. Davka Corporation: 2004 (All references to Babylonian Talmud and Midrash Rabbah)

Weissman, Moshe, The Midrash Says: The Narrative of the Weekly Torah-portion in the Perspective of Our Sages (Bamidbar). Benei Yakov Publications, 1980.

אטינגר, יאיר. 'הרב עובדיה יוסף: נשים המתעטפות בטלית ומניחות תפילין הן "טיפשות."' הערץ Online פורסם ב
- . 23:25 7, Nov 09

The words of Ovadiah Yosef cited from Ettinger:

"תפילין היא צריכה להיזהר לא לשים. יש טיפשות שבאות לכותל המערבי, שמות טלית ומתפללות. אלו שוטים. רוצות שוויון, לא רוצים שם שמיים, צריך להוקיע אותן ולהיזהר", אמר הרב.