Thoughts on parashat Pinchas.
How should we deal with evil? Should we fight back, respond with a poker face or should we demonstrate proper behavior and do the evildoer a good deed in hopes that he will become aware of the wickedness of his behavior and will return to the right path? The answers to these questions are dependent on what we believe about the nature of evil, specifically, does evil exist objectively? Or instead, perhaps, certain human actions are only evil ‘in our eyes’ – we only “perceive” them as evil and then call them so. It also depends on what we believe about bad people: can someone be evil simply by nature or are the so-called bad people merely misguided?
Of course this is an endless debate, with arguments for and against this and that position. It is good, however, to have an elaborated opinion on that topic because one never knows when they may find themselves interacting with real, genuine evil. Thus, let us, religious Jews, look into the Torah.
Our parasha starts with the story of Pinchas’ divine reward. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, was rewarded with the eternal priesthood for killing another Israelite – the Simeonite prince Zimri – as well as the Midianite princess, who was his paramour. It all happened after “the Israelite people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god” (Numbers 25:1-2). Although that may sound at least controversial to our modern ears, both our Sages and biblical commentators believe that the slaying of Zimri was correct. Not recommended, but just. Halachically speaking, it was the case of halacha ve’ein morin ken – a halacha we do not teach. Although our sages in tractate Sanhedrin consider excommunicating Pinchas for his deed, commentators like Rashi, Ramban, Kli Yakar portray Pinchas as a hero who actually deserves praise because he did the right thing risking his own life for the sake of the Torah.
By this standard what Pinchas did was correct, but the act of execution itself was beyond the norms of Jewish ethics and Jewish law. The story of Pinchas is often compared to the one of prophet Elijah, who killed 450 prophets of Baal, as we find in I Kings 18:40:
Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal, let not a single one of them get away.” They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there. (I Kings 18:40)
Right after that, Elijah runs away from king Ahab, because his wife, Jezebel, swears to avenge the murdered prophets and kill him. However, Elijah’s behavior goes beyond fearing for his life, he is very sorrowful in the aftermath of what he did. Being hungry and parched he wishes to die in the desert:
Frightened, he fled at once for his life. He came to Beer-sheba, which is in Judah, and left his servant there; he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “Enough!” he cried. “Now, O LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He lay down and fell asleep under a broom bush. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” He looked about; and there, beside his head, was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water! He ate and drank, and lay down again. (I Kings 19:3-6)
Elijah is on his way to mount Horeb (Sinai). He goes there for 40 days and 40 nights because he wishes to relive the Sinai experience and return to what is the proper Divine path. God saves Elijah’s life and shows him His ways:
“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound. (I Kings 19:11-12)
The passage above tells us what are the ways of the Holy One and how should people conduct themselves if they wish to follow His ways. Even though all these phenomena were caused by the Divine power, God was not in them; God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God was in what happened at the end – He was in a soft, murmuring sound. The lesson being, in God’s eyes, the appropriate action involves calmness and forethought.
It is this considerate, calm and patient manner that we should approach evil. Generally speaking, it means that we should never allow evil to dominate our minds nor our behavior. Everything else is situational. Sometimes we need to fight back, sometimes we need to remain indifferent and sometimes we need to respond to evil with good. Everything depends on the magnitude of evil and the power dynamic between the parties involved: if power is on our side and our life and well-being is not endangered, then we definitely have the luxury to respond to evil with a demonstration of good behavior in an effort to teach. If the situation is equal, it is often better to remain calm and negotiate, to try to steer the person away from the wrong path, to stave off bad intentions and plans. If power is on the side of evil doers, well then we don’t have much of a choice: we can either run and sacrifice everything we cherish or fight back and try to restore the proper status quo (this was basically the case of Pinchas).
The kind of killing that Pinchas or Elijah did was not justified already in rabbinic times, let alone today when it would be considered a murder (or was it an act of war? but that is another topic). Nevertheless, both stories contain yet another message: every social conflict that escalates can reach its tipping point, after which, there is no return. After reaching that point there is only violence and this violence becomes justified in the eyes of each party that decides it is the last resort. We have no a priori knowledge about when this tipping point will be reached. Therefore, in our turbulent times, we need to at least hear the arguments of ‘the other side’ and treat them seriously, for the sake of peace. The more often we do this, the better. Even though peace can sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of truth, peace is still in the best interest of all parties. Peace is not only in the best interest of a “tribe” it is in the best interest of all humanity.
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