For many years, I thought religion was the ultimate evil. That religion caused more harm than good and was the justification for all wars in “god’s name.” The episode that plays out in this week’s parsha can easily corroborate that belief.
Here’s some context from last week:
An Israelite man and a Moabite woman engaged in a public sexual act in the sacred space of Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas sees this, he gets up, grabs his spear and impales and kills them both. His actions stop a plague that kills off 24,000 people.
When we pick up the story this week, God tells Moses: “Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron has returned my wrath with his zealousness” (Numbers 25:11). God awards him a Brit Shalom – “covenant of peace” – and an everlasting Priesthood where all future high priests emerge from his lineage.
HOW COULD THIS BE?!
IS THIS NOT JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF HOW RELIGION BREEDS VIOLENCE?
IS THIS NOT A GLORIFICATION OF EXTREMISM?
The answer is yes, but only if you look at our texts on a surface level without seeing them in a larger context. My old narrative was to dismiss religion because of my own baggage and lack of study. Now, after immersing myself in the texts, what I have discovered is that the most challenging texts are the ones that teach us the most. That when we turn them over and over, they have the potential to reveal a deep truth about human nature that we might not have noticed if the troubling text wasn’t there in the first place.
What I believe this story teaches us is that acts of violence stem from a breakdown in communication. Silence and emotional turmoil are what lead Cain to kill his brother Abel, and also when Joseph’s brothers throw him in the pit, the text says “[Joseph’s brothers] were unable to speak with him peacefully” (Genesis 37:5).
Similarly in last week’s portion, Pinchas acted impulsively and took actions into his own hands.
There was no conversation.
Because where there is silence, violence ensues.
And if we ended the narrative right here, then I believe our holy scriptures would be promoting violence. It would feed an old story about religion and give me an excuse to ignore religion in totality. Instead, what the text is doing is inviting our questions.
For instance, why then does God grant Pinchas with a covenant of peace?
The Netziv (Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century) answers: “the ‘brit shalom’ is a necessary healing rather than a reward. Pinchas is granted an inner peace in order to help him get over the self-destructive consequences of his violence.”
The covenant is not a reward; it was the gift of a second chance. It gave Pinchas the ability to forgive himself, which is a good quality to have if your role as High Priest is to beseech God to forgive the Jewish people.
Further, there is one other episode in our Bible where Pinchas appears – in Joshua chapter 22:
The Israelites have conquered Canaan, and they are now dividing up the holy land. After fulfilling their promise to fight on the front lines, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe begin to settle on the East side of the Jordan river, separated from the remaining tribes.
And the first thing they do is build altars.
When the remaining tribes see this, they immediately perceive it to be an act of idolatry, and word is sent to Pinchas to declare war on these other tribes.
The difference in this scene is that the lines of communication are open, and the two and one-half tribes are given a chance to explain why they built altars:
“We thought that since we are on the other side of the Jordan, our children and your children might one day forget that we have a portion in Israel. That we would no longer be included in the nation of Israel. So we built these altars so they would serve as a Witness between you and us, and that our future generations would continue in the worship of God” (Joshua 22:24-25).
The altars are not dedicated to a foreign deity; they are reminders for future generations that they belong. And when Pinchas hears this, his mind is settled and he praises the eastern tribes.
Pinchas has evolved. He is no longer quick to judge and destroy. Instead, he listens to the opposing sides and stops a potential civil war from breaking out.
These stories are not promoting violence or extremism; rather they are illustrating how violence and extremism can emerge when there is a lack of understanding. Our Torah does not preach violence; it promotes second chances.
We all make mistakes, and those mistakes can have huge consequences and potentially cause irreparable damage throughout the world. Thankfully, just as God granted a brit shalom to Pinchas, God also gives us a second chance to make amends and bring healing.
May we continue to learn from our past deeds and transgressions, and may our teshuvah bring comfort and healing to all.
Rabbi Joseph Shamash