Parashat Pinchas 5777

Rabbi Pete Tobias, 14 July 2017

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) is one of those portions that Liberal Jews might do well to avoid. I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that back in the day when Liberal rabbis chose carefully selected passages that they thought would be inspiring and uplifting for their early twentieth century audience, this week’s parashah would not have featured very prominently among their selections. Once the idea of a weekly lectionary became the norm, those who compiled the list of suggested readings struggled to find three sections to offer as choices for Torah readings for this Shabbat.

Chapters 28 and 29 are filled with little more than lists of sacrificial offerings – subjects that would certainly not have found a place in the early days of Liberal Jewish Torah readings. Once Liberal rabbis were obliged to read something from Pinchas, perhaps Chapter 27 might have offered some options. Certainly in the current lectionary, its two sections are suggested readings. The opening section deals with the plight of the daughters of Zelophad, who dies without any male descendants. In what was probably a revolutionary decision for the historical period in which the Torah was written, it is agreed that his inheritance should pass to his daughters. This is a faint glimmer of gender equality that is otherwise notable for its absence from biblical religion and the patriarchal society that produced it.

The second section of chapter 27 sees Moses being reminded by God that he will not be permitted to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. He will be able to see the land, but will not cross over the Jordan to enter it. Instead, he is to appoint Joshua in his place. Perhaps this section might encourage some reflection on the nature of leadership, were these verses to be read.

The question of what to offer as a third option is a difficult one, however. The whole of Chapter 26 is a lengthy list of the numbers of each tribal group, following a terrible plague that is visited upon the Israelites as a form of divine punishment. In the previous parashah, the Israelites have been led into sin by the Midianites and Moses orders that those who have sinned should be punished. That portion ends with Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, thrusting his spear through a Midianite woman and an Israelite man – an act which stopped the plague. At the beginning of this parashah, the eponymous hero, Pinchas, is congratulated and rewarded by God for his zeal. The Hebrew phrase ‘kinnei l’eilohav’ is variously translated as ‘He was jealous for his God’ (Hertz), ‘…he took impassioned action for his God’ (JPS) ‘…(he was) displaying his passion for Me’ (Plaut). This ‘passion’ was the murder of two individuals, Zimri son of Salu, and Cozbi, daughter of Zur. They represented the sin that the Israelites had committed, but the manner in which the problem was addressed is alarming for its brutality.

Nevertheless, it is this section that is offered as the third option (well, actually the first, because it is the opening section of the parashah) for a passage to read for Shabbat Pinchas. What possible justification can there be for reading an account of such violence, the murder of two people by someone who is then rewarded with God’s ‘covenant of peace’ (Hertz) or ‘pact of friendship’ (JPS) for the action he carried out?

My suggestion is this. That we should read the opening verses of parashat Pinchas to remind ourselves of everything that is bad about religion. A God who rewards someone for carrying out a brutal murder. A man who is so moved by his devotion to his deity that he is prepared to commit murder on that deity’s behalf. It’s stuff like this that gives religion a bad name. And we should not be afraid to call our religious heritage to account for offering such ugly and violent scenes. We live in a world where some religions still speak the language of Pinchas, whose view of God is as perverse and frightening as that shown by the grandson of Aaron the priest. Our own religious tradition is not untainted by such events in its past. We cannot pretend that it did not happen just by choosing not to read it.

Only if we are prepared to recognise and acknowledge that which is ugly and brutal in the heart of our own religious history can we earn the right to select those parts of our heritage that are noble and valid. Indeed, much of the beauty of our Judaism resides in the very fact that it emerged from an environment in which such acts of zeal received approval and praise, where violence against those who believed differently was expected or even demanded. The fact that such attitudes still prevail in our age is something we abhor, but we can only do so with integrity if we recognise that it once had a place in our heritage also.

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