Reading morally challenging texts in the Torah can be approached in more than one way. We can recognize that the text should not be read literally, but rather came about in a time and place with much different moral standards than our own. One weakness of this methodology is that it’s fine if we’re studying ancient Near Eastern literature, but doesn’t work as well if we’re seeking to gain holy meaning from the text. It also would seem to excuse too much if the text in question is truly troublesome and still held up as a religious document. We can also find some sort of larger moral lesson to be learned from it – taking a step back and looking at the big picture. A drawback of this is that it would still seem to excuse any moral questions the text brings up. That being said, we can hold both methodologies at the same time – they need not be mutually exclusive.
In this week’s parashah, Pinchas, we begin with God’s praise of the priest called Pinchas, who used a spear to impale together an Israelite, Zimri, and a Midianite woman, Cozbi. God praises Pinchas because he was “zealous” for God (his anger reflected God’s anger) and is granted a “covenant of peace.” Yet what is praiseworthy about a zealousness that murders two people because of a) impropriety (the text tells us they were having sex in front of the entire Israelite camp) or b) intermarriage or c) idolatry?
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Netziv), who lived in Lithuania in the 1800s, had a slightly different take on the Pinchas events. The reason, the Netziv, writes, that God gave Pinchas an attribute of peace was to assuage his anger and impulsiveness. God did this to prevent such an act from happening again, but also to soothe Pinchas’s heart after committing such a dreadful deed.
What can we do with a tradition that claims that God approves, even rewards, such behavior? It is not news that the Torah contradicts itself. This is part of its beauty (and frustration). It’s right there in the Ten Commandments: “Do not murder.” (The Hebrew word “tirtzach” in fact means “murder” and not “kill,” though of course whether or not an act is murder and not just killing is often in the eye of the beholder.) One can appreciate that, on one level, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings, and especially human beings of a certain time and place which would have stressed loyalty to one’s tribe to the extent that executing traitors would have been praiseworthy. But what else is the Torah trying to tell us? What larger message can we pull out of it?
As the movie Inside Out illustrates, anger is one of our basic human emotions. Anger is valuable for a number of reasons – it can energize us to fight for causes we believe in or to call someone out when they’re being obnoxious or unjust. But without an outlet, something to do, anger gets bottled up inside us, and it can be destructive, releasing at the wrong moment, making us lose our self-control and resulting in damage and hurt to others. Or it turns inward, into overwhelming sadness, despair. Or anger directs toward the self and becomes depression. One of the hallmarks of even mild depression is a profound loss of interest in activities that used to engross us, awaken our zeal. Hopelessness overwhelms us, dulls our emotions. Depression can express itself as no emotion at all, of walking through the world as though in a dream or robotic state.
And so, it is often easier for many of us to turn off our hearts in response to the suffering in the world. It can be too painful to face others’ suffering: to face the news, to face injustice. Better to take care of ourselves only. Then we wouldn’t have to feel that energy-sapping inward-directed anger.
We may desire peace, but do we desire justice?
Let’s each of us try to find that balance between anger and calm, justice and peace, and to find our way to leave the world better than we found it.