a d’var Torah for Parashat Pinchas by Esther Azar
Zeal — In this day many of us are fired up. It is easy to see the injustice. It shouts at us every time we open our Facebook feeds, it’s red face looks up at us from the newspapers at our feet. We march, we sing, we chant. We scream out in agony demanding change.
A while back I marched for Black Lives Matter. Walking amongst colleagues and friends, I felt a pain in the pit of my stomach. I wished for silence on those Manhattan streets, the blurred lights of the city mixing with my angst as those around me chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, these racist cops have got to go!” Standing at the intersection of activists and police officers, I suddenly understood my discomfort. My words rose to the surface as I turned to the person standing next to me. “What are we doing chanting at the men and women tasked with changing in this racist world? Our words of anger will not bring the change we need. Is alienating those that stand in their fear the way to help them see, or are we blinding them further?”At the very end of last week’s parashah [Balak], the bible’s zealous archetype, Pinchas, sees unlawful and unholy behavior dangerous to the community and acts, publicly slaughtering the Israelite man Zimri and the Midianite woman Cosbi as they consort before the Tent of Meeting. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) teaches that the angels ask God to punish Pinchas. Our rabbis also insist on a very narrow application of the zealotry displayed by Pinchas in his vigilante justice-seeking (Sanhedrin 72a). The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Mordechai Yosef Leiner (early 19th Century), explains that Pinchas, as a good student of Torah, knew that Zimri’s actions were so grave they demanded death. What he didn’t know was that Cosbi and Zimri were, in fact, soulmates. Zimri’s actions were in the name of heaven, and that is why Moshe himself did not stop them. Pinchas’ limited vision only allowed him to see one aspect of the situation. God understood that Pinchas’ actions come from a limited human understanding of justice, a binary thinking, and God honored this innocence and chose not to punish him.Our rabbis teach (e.g., Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer ch. 28 & 47) that Pinchas becomes Elijah the Prophet, who was also renowned for his zeal, but we might wonder how one who acted so questionably could bring a messianic age. God recognizes Pinchas’ limitations and his innocent conviction, and rather than punish him, God offers him a Brit Shalom, a covenant of wholeness. The root of shalom/peace, is also shleimut/wholeness. This gift that God bestows upon him doesn’t applaud his action; rather, God becomes the teacher I always dream of, the teacher that opens us up rather than pushing us down. Instead of reprimanding Pinchas, sending him into a spiral of shame, God offers him the missing piece. God enables Pinchas to move from limited sight to seeing wholeness, and in this moment Elijah is born.This vision of the whole, that recognizes the interconnectedness of all actions and sees beyond our limited perspective, is the messianic vision.This is the vision I pray for. I pray that when I stand across from someone who is acting out of fear, I can call them out of the darkness, and not through shame … rather by enabling them to see beyond their limited perspective. In the current climate, we need to lean into that potential to see wholly and use that vision – one of fully seeing and acknowledging all sides – to guide us forward. And we must speak from that expansiveness. It is a difficult journey, and the power intrinsic to zeal is tempting and, oftentimes, influenced by our own limited sense of power or ability to see “the other(s)” in wholeness. Messianic vision is able to see all perspectives and recognize the relationships that web them together. From this understanding (and stretching toward it) that true healing can manifest. In the coming days, I pray that we have the ability to see beyond our limited vision and see the pain of those we call “other” so that, together, we too can receive a Brit Shalom and bring deep healing to the world.
Esther Azar is Director of Family Engagement at Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan. She is also my dear friend and we will, b’ezrat haShem, receive semicha together in January, 2018. This piece was posted in the weekly e-mail, Torah from T’ruah.
I also encourage readers interested in exploring the complexity of the Korach story to read the commentary of Steven Greenberg, entitled Pinchas, Zimri, and the Channels of Divine Will in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, David Shneer.
– Shabbat Shalom (JKS)
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