This weeks parasha seems to cut the story of Pinchas in half. At the end of ‘Balak’ the story is told of Pinchas, the son of Elazar, in which he takes a spear and thrusts it through an Israelite who was fornicating with a moabite woman, the result of which was the halt of a plague sent by G-d which had already killed twenty four thousand people. This week’s parasha begins with the results of that incident. YHVH Himself appears to Moshe and commends Pinchas for his act and establishes a ‘covenant of peace’ with him and promises an everlasting priesthood. It appears to be a strange thing that G-d would establish a ‘covenant of peace’ with a man who had just violently killed two people, without ‘due process’. Why was Pinchas a hero instead of a vigilante?
G-d says that Pinchas had executed G-d’s vengeance among them. What was going on? The people had begun to commit harlotry with Moab, and had fallen into idolatry. YHVH had instructed Moshe to put to death the leaders of Israel who had engaged in such behavior. Before that could happen, Zimri, of the tribe of Simeon, came with a midianite woman in the presence of the leaders of Israel and took her into his tent in the sight of all. And no one did anything. Moshe, Aaron, Joshua, the leaders of Israel, everyone saw this and they did nothing. G-d had given a command, it was being violated before their eyes and they all stood around doing nothing. And for their lack of passion for the commands of G-d, a plague had broken out in the camp. People were dropping like flies and still, nothing was done. Until Pinchas took a spear and did his thing.
First of all, this was not wanton murder or the act of a vigilante. He was fulfilling the command given by G-d in 25:5 and doing what was needed to stop the plague. But he did so at great risk to his own life, for this man was a leader in Simeon and Pinchas could have brought the wrath of that whole tribe on himself. His courage demonstrated the self-sacrificial nature of His service to G-d and to the community of Israel. He was ready to follow the commands of G-d (Torah) without intellectual considerations. G-d said do it, he did it.
Second, Pinchas is a testimony to all of us who may not be visible leaders and a warning to those of us who are. Pinchas was not a leader at the time, he was not the High Priest, he was just a ‘trainee’. But when all the leaders of Israel, including the great Moshe, stood around with their jaws on the ground twiddling their thumbs, Pinchas knew something had to be done, so he did it. Sometimes leaders are silent when they should speak (and sometimes the opposite is true) but that does not mean that nothing is to be done. When one becomes aware that something needs to be done, one is obligated to do it, regardless of who one is or is not. As the saying goes, “The only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. Pinchas understood this and did what needed to be done. Our responsibility is the same.
Finally, why was he given a ‘covenant of peace’? Peace is shalom which means much more than that. It is wholeness, completeness, fullness. Being consumed with zeal for G-d, serving Him regardless of the costs to person or property, makes one ‘whole’, it makes one what G-d created all of us to be. We can learn a lot from such an example. No matter who you are, it is your obligation to do whatever you can to advance the Kingdom by living a life of zealous obedience to the commandments and the G-d who gave them.
At the end of last week’s parasha we read the account of how Pinchas saved Israel from a very serious plague, killing an Israelite man and Midianite woman by following them into their tent and thrusting them through with a spear. Not exactly what we consider appropriate behavior for clergy. And according to Jewish law, the killing of another human being disqualifies one for the priesthood. The people looked at this less than favorably as well and there are some indications that there was a lynching in the planning. But G-d shows up and declares that Pinchas has saved the nation from the wrath of G-d and that because he executed G-d’s vengeance upon one of the ringleaders, the priesthood was his and his descendants.
Who was Pinchas? He was a son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron. Although from an important family, there was nothing significant about him up to this point in his life. He was merely a levite, the priesthood had only been given to Aaron’s sons, it was not guaranteed to anyone beyond that. There is no indication that he was on the ‘inside’, he was not mentioned in any significant way before this. He lived in the shadow of Moshe, and in that of his father and uncle and to less of an extent the princes of Israel, the elders and the leaders of the tribes. When this situation arose, Pinchas was not the first person anyone expected to act. It was Moshe and Aaron and Eleazar who fell on their faces before G-d and interceded when the people messed up. They provided what the congregation needed, they had intimate access to G-d’s plan and will.
This time the pattern was not followed. Israel was sinning with the women of Midian, they were falling out of favor with G-d again and in fact, they were being threatened with annihilation by G-d once again for their grievous sin. If Zimri, the leader of Simion, was any indication, it was a flagrant violation of G-d’s covenant. He paraded a princess of Midian before Moshe and the elders and took her into his tent. There was no question as to what was going on. And everyone was standing around looking at each other and doing nothing. A plague had started and people were dying under the wrath of G-d. Moshe didn’t fall on his face, Eleazar didn’t take incense among the people, the elders did nothing. I’m sure there were people who looked at each other, anger and the fear of G-d welling up within them, wondering when Moshe or one of the leaders was going to do something. No one moved. That is until Pinchas grabbed a spear and stopped the plague.
We have all heard the quote, ‘the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’. The very survival of the people of Israel was at stake. The recognized leadership was apparently paralyzed and a relative nobody stood up and saved the day by doing something very unusual and unpleasant. Leadership in necessary but leadership, even leadership uniquely and obviously called by G-d, is never perfect. Moshe was a leader but he failed the people this time. Zimri was a leader and was engaging in obvious and flagrant sin. There were probably people standing around assuming that it was Moshe’s responsibility, Zimri was a leader of G-d’s people and we can’t touch ‘G-d’s anointed’, ‘G-d has not called me to do this’ and a million other excuses that we have all used ourselves to get out of taking a course of action we knew we should.
Everyone in G-d’s community is significant and there is no one that is in such a high position that they are beyond correction. Who was Esther, who was David, who was Pinchas? How do any of us know that the place in which we are is not the one in which G-d is going to find out what kind of people we are. When we something that needs to be done, are we going to make excuses or are we going to take action? Are we going to defend the helpless, are we going to stand up for righteousness, are we going to wink at sin or the coarse jokes? The choice is ours.
Because we have been discussing leadership within the community of Israel, I’m going to continue in this theme at least one more week. This week we have the selection of Yoshua to succeed Moshe as leader of Israel and bring the people into their inheritance. Moshe knows what kind of a leader is needed and he asks “May YHVH, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who will go out before them and come in before them, who shall take them out and bring them in and let the assembly of YHVH not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
First, Moshe addresses G-d as “G-d of the spirits of all flesh”. In choosing a leader, Moshe was acknowledging that only G-d Himself had the wisdom and knowledge of the hearts of men to choose the man whose heart was right. Moshe had seen too many would be leaders arise over the people with disastrous results. He knew G-d would search the innermost being of man to find a leader who would be a proper shepherd and a leader who would be close enough to G-d to see into the hearts of men as well.
Moshe wanted a leader to go out before them and bring them in. Unlike today, warfare in ancient times was not fought by generals far from the lines. Moshe led the people against Sihon and Og and he wanted Israel to have a leader who would, through his example, go out on the front lines. We all know that people can say anything, men an women might give great speeches and be great motivators, but it is those who put their lives and reputations on the line for what they believe that demonstrate the greatest characteristics of leadership and inspire the greatest devotion from those who they lead. “Bring them in..” is the result of all this effort. They would come into the promised land. Great leadership is rarely known for it’s great efforts but for it’s results.
Finally, Moshe wanted a leader who had learned to be a shepherd as he had. Someone who would lead the flock with love and care, who would teach and discipline and guide at all the appropriate times in the appropriate measure. Not a dictator, not a bean counter, not a visionary and not someone without vision, a man who could be whatever what was needed for a given situation; a father, a friend, a disciplinarian, a visionary, a hands on worker. It was a tall order and while Yoshua was not Moshe, he was a great leader in Israel and kept the people on the straight and narrow while he was with them. May we have leaders of such character today!
What does it mean to be ‘zealous’ for YHVH? Our parasha and haftorah contain the stories of two great men who were described as being zealous for God. Pinchas, who at the end of our last parasha killed an Israelite man and a Midianite woman and Elijah who had just finished the great contest on Mt. Carmel that resulted in the death of several hundred of the prophets of Baal. Pinchas was given an eternal covenant of shalom, Elijah was miraculously preserved and protected and blessed with a great revelation of God’s presence. The actions that led to their commendation were not what is popularly thought of as being zealous for God. On the surface, such zealousness seems to have more in common with radical Islam than with either Judaism or Christianity.
‘Zealous’, in Hebrew, is ‘qana’-qoph, nun, alef. It is most often translated as jealous or envious. The Philistines envied Isaac (Gen 26:14), Rachael envied her sister (Gen 30:1), it is a spirit of jealousy that comes over a man in Numbers 5. The ten commandments tell us that YHVH is a jealous God (Ex 20:5) and that His name is ‘Jealous’. Another hint to our meaning is Deuteronomy 4:24 where qana and ‘consuming fire’ are paralleled in Hebrew poetry. This seems to leave us with another contradiction. Not only do our examples of zealots engage in uncivilized, barbaric behavior but they are commended for exhibiting a trait-envy, we have been taught is less than admirable. What is going on here?
We know that to be envious, jealous or zealous is to be consumed by something. The Philistines and Rachael were being consumed with the desire to have what someone else had. The proverbs teach us not to be envious of the wicked even when we see them prosper. That is qana in a negative sense. As with all things, even things like envy and hate, there is a proper direction and application of it for the righteous person for righteous purposes. We are to direct our envy and jealousy to the things of God and God Himself. We are to become passionate, consumed for God and the things of God. I dare say few of us can make the claim our passions are directed to Him as they should be. Y’shua taught that anyone who loves the things of this world or even the people around us more then him, if our love for them is not like hatred when compared to our consuming passion for God, we are not worthy of Him. This is, of course, something you have probably heard before and such teachings usually end with such nebulous exhortations to go and live passionately for God. The question is, what are we supposed to do, how do we exhibit and direct our passions correctly?
Qana is a characteristic of God we are to emulate. His very name, one of His defining characteristics, is Qana. What does He want, what is he envious of? As we answer that question, we will know what we are to do, how we are to live. God wants what He has always wanted in His creation-shalom, wholeness, completeness, perfection, balance. When things are out of balance, bad things happen, for he is envious of restoring that balance. There were two ways of restoring balance and Israel’s experience with the Midianites illustrate both of them. YHVH had already started a plague that would eliminate all the evildoers. Pinchas, on the other hand, killed the leader of the idolatry, Zimri, head of the Simeonites. God was consuming the whole body, Pinchas cut off the part where the cancer had started. It is reminiscent of Y’shua’s teaching that we should cut out the eye or cut off the hand if it offends lest the whole body be consumed in the fires of Hell.
In last weeks haftorah we read Micah 6:8 which gave us the duty of man. Man’s duty is God’s duty. If evil, injustice and wickedness multiply and the world is out of balance, the imbalance will be rectified, the question is how. If God does it, it is usually very catastrophic and messy. If we become passionate for justice and chesed and we learn to understand and walk in humility we will do the things necessary to restore shalom in the world with precision and effectiveness. Think of it simply as the law of cause and effect, it works the same way in the physical as it does in the natural. In the natural, if it rains too much and the ground becomes soaked, there will be a flood, a destructive act. If there is no rain, there is a drought and things die. Both circumstances are out of balance and result in destruction. We have the ability not to stop or create rain but to build dams and irrigate parched areas.
We must learn to direct our actions most effectively. Elijah didn’t go house to house throughout Israel and try to convert people from Baal, he went to the source of the problem. Pinchas didn’t try to find and kill every idolater, he went to the top and cut off the head. We have a limited amount of time in this world and we need to use it effectively. Too often we spend time sandbagging around every house along the river when one well placed dam would solve the problem. This is where humility comes in. We know our place and our job and when in connection with the Creator we will know the appropriate times and targets for action.
There are many attitudes toward the observance of Torah in the lives of those who have found it important. In Judaism there is Orthodox, Conservative and Reformed and within those distinctions there are varied interpretations. In the Messianic community the fulfillment of the commands of Moshe are just as varied although the theological reasons for it are different. At one end are those who see the changeless and eternal nature of the commands and will try to fulfill every one down to the last detail, restricting their lives within a cocoon of religious observance. They have a tradition stretching back to the strictest of the Pharisees. They are scrupulous in observance yet ultimately frustrated because without a nation centered around the Torah and a culture that applies a constant pressure in the opposite direction, it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements of the Law. Unable to fulfill all the requirements and constantly realizing they fall short, such people often feel guilty. They try to raise their children in such strictness, and this goes for any religious tradition, and find their children do not value such strict observance because it does not meet their inner desire to connect with God. All it does, in their mind, is makes them frustrated and God angry. On the other hand are those that see Torah as outmoded and culturally and practically irrelevant. Because we are much more culturally and scientifically advanced than were the people of Moshe’s time, we do not need his antiquated laws or worldview. With no root, such people are cast adrift. In Judaism, it leads to assimilation. While the strict observer of Torah has a God that constantly looks over his shoulder and in his pot, the liberal has a God that doesn’t care at all. He has thrown out God and Torah but has not replaced it with anything. Such people often lose their moral compass and end up finding life meaningless. Without a goal, without reward or punishment, without community and a realization that nothing is eternal, they are empty.
So what do we do? How can we keep from being guilt ridden on the one hand or empty on the other? What do we do with rules and regulations, like the sacrifices and festivals in our parasha, that were formulated and applied in a time, place and culture so far removed from our own. Two things need to be done. One is to change our understanding of God. I have been spending a lot of time on this so this week we are going to look at number two, understanding the purpose and place of religious expression and observance. First, we must be honest. The Torah was for a time, place and people that are very different from our own. The festivals are centered on Israel’s agricultural year, a year that is very different in other places. The laws of kashrut are for a people centered on the animal husbandry found in that part of the world. Much of the religious ritual in a modification of the sacrificial ritual found in much of the ancient world. Do we apply the same religious calendar in the southern hemisphere? The same dietary restrictions on a tropical island? The same bloody sacrificial ritual in the backyards of suburban America?
What was the real reason for these things in Moshe’s time? The fact is that religious ritual serves one purpose and that is the ordering of society. A man alone needs no religious ritual, he needs no law! Such things are for regulating the interaction of individuals in society and they are needed because very few people in any society use their ‘ma’, their gut, to self-regulate their behavior. In reality, all but the most psychopathic of us know what is right and wrong, we have an innate sense of justice and injustice, we know we are to do the right thing and treat our fellow man with dignity and respect. However, few people do this naturally. A society that values consumerism and things above people will train people to think contrary to their ma, treating people as objects, and set up a constant conflict within them. The rules and regulations of religion retrain people to do what they should do naturally if their minds had not been corrupted. This retraining is accompanied by the development of a personal external force that will reward compliance and punish disobedience. This force may be God or gods or even superstition. To perpetuate and enforce these ideas, a priesthood is developed. At Mt. Sinai the original plan, before the golden calf, was for each family to be headed by a priest, the firstborn. After the people showed such a lack of restraint, it was obvious they needed more rules and regulations and because of the behavior of the levites, they were rewarded with the job.
Moshe was a very wise man who knew the way the universe was supposed to work and man’s place within it. He developed the Torah in response to Israel's development as a people in their time and place and in response to the cultural pressures they experienced. The whole purpose was to bring man, individually and corporately, into harmony with God and and the world. His brilliance should not be as easily dismissed as the liberal might. Yet he was working in a time and place that is very different from ours. Moshe’s way of ordering a society in harmony with the laws of the universe is not the only way although every way will be similar because those laws do not change. And if all were prophets like Moshe desired, and followed the duty Micah spoke of, doing justice, loving chesed and walking humbly (no ego) the external Torah would be minimal and great harmony and shalom would be achieved.