Balak: There’s A Man With A Gun Over There

At the end of this week’s Parsha (Torah Portion) Balak, Bamidbar (Numbers) 25:6-13, the Kohain (Priest) Pinchas kills Zimri, a male Israelite, and Cozbi, a Midianite woman, stabbing them with a spear through their bellies while Cozbi and Zimri were having sexual relations in public – in front of Moshe (Moses) and the community at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In next week’s Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, God gives Pinchas a Brit of Shalom (a covenant of peace), and honors Pinchas with the promise that his descendants will form the line of the priesthood. God, it would appear, has rewarded Pinchas for his zealotry (Bamidbar 25:10-13).

For many of us, this is a difficult outcome to deal with. Rashi’s commentary on Bamidbar 25:7 presents an even greater problem, saying that if a man “commits harlotry with an Aramean woman, zealous people have the right to strike him down.” With the Pinchas story as a backdrop, let’s pose a general question. How do we deal with difficult texts in the Torah? Where do we look when certain parts of the Torah provide a stark contrast to 21st century values? How do we as a modern people deal with an ancient text?

First, the Torah is not “ancient.” It has been around a long time but it is not ancient in any way. The Torah is as alive and as cutting edge today as it was when it first came into the world. However, for the Torah to be a living text that speaks to us today, we must continue to interpret and reinterpret its meaning. This is something we have always done.

For example, in Devarim (Deuteronomy) 21:18-21 we have the law of the Ben Sorer Umoreh, the rebellious child. According to the Torah, the rebellious child is to be stoned to death. The Talmud Sanhedrin 71a, however, states that such a punishment never happened and never will. I would like to suggest that what the Talmud may actually mean is, it did happen and we do not want it to happen ever again. Therefore, we state it never happened and it never will. By articulating that it never happened and it never will, the Talmud eliminates any possibility of this punishment as a precedent and thus guarantees that the practice will never be carried out. Interestingly, the Talmud does seem to indicate that there was one child who was executed for being rebellious. The Talmud finds the practice of killing the rebellious child so reprehensible that it essentially turns the Torah law of Ben Sorer Umoreh upside down.

Perhaps we can apply the same logic to the story of Pinchas. One way to approach the story of Pinchas is to posit that it happened and we absolutely do not want it to ever happen again. If we look at the story from this perspective we must also find another way of looking at the covenant of peace that God gave to Pinchas. Usually when you receive something in the Torah it is not necessarily something you want, but rather, something you need. I do not know if Pinchas wanted the blessing of peace, but God only knows he needed that blessing of peace after what he did. The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, puts forth such an approach to the covenant of peace for Pinchas in his commentary on Bamidbar 25:12.

By making Pinchas and his descendants the Kohanim, God is, perhaps, sequestering Pinchas and his descendants. Maybe, after this incident, God sees that it is best to keep Pinchas and his descendants away from society where their misplaced zealotry will not cause harm to others. As priests, their days will be spent sacrificing animals and performing other aspects of the service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Hopefully modern day Kohanim do not need to be sequestered away from society in this way.

The Pinchas narrative is ultimately a story about misplaced zealotry. No faith community is immune to the problem. The challenge of any faith community is not whether misplaced zealotry ever happens; the challenge is how to deal with it before it happens. What we should take away from the zealotry of Pinchas is to be zealous in the love of our fellow Jews; zealous in our love of our fellow human beings; and zealous in our pursuit of passionate yet respectful disagreement.

 

This week’s title “There’s a man with a gun over there” is from the song “For What It’s Worth”. The song was written by Stephen Stills. It was recorded on December 5, 1966 with Buffalo Springfield. It was released as a single in January 1967. Later on, it was added to the re-release of Buffalo Springfield’s first album, Buffalo Springfield.As a single it reached number seven on the Billboard chart. The song is ranked #63 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It is also the eighth best song of 1966 by Acclaimed Music.

Stephen Stills wrote the song based on an event that took place in November 1966 in Los Angeles. This was the year that Buffalo Springfield became the house band at the Whisky a Go Go one of the hottest LA clubs in the sixties. Local business owners and residents had a 10:00 PM curfew passed. This was done to reduce the traffic from the Whisky a Go Go and other clubs in the area. On November 12, 1966 a protest against the curfew took place. There were approximately 1,000 demonstrators, including Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. Peter Fonda was handcuffed by the police.

Most people probably assume that the song was written as a protest song against the Vietnam War or some other issue that took place during the 1960’s. The song was used in that way by different political groups during the sixties but the origin was the protest against the curfew. There is also a misconception that the song was written about the Kent State Massacre. This obviously can not be true as the Kent State Massacre occurred on May 4 1970 almost four years after “For What It’s Worth” was written. Neil Young who was in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with Stephen Stills did write a song about the Kent State Massacre called “Ohio,” shortly after the Massacre occurred. Robert Plant who would eventually become the lead singer of Led Zeppelin also recorded the song “For What It’s Worth” with his band at the time, Band of Joy in 1968.

It is interesting the song’s title is not used anywhere in the song. There is a reason for this. When Stills presented the song to Atlantic Records executive Ahmet Ertegun, who signed Buffalo Springfield to the ATCO label owned by Atlantic records, Stills said to Ahmet Ertegun: “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.” Due to Stills using that phrase when he presented the song, Ertegun concluded that was the title of the song. Record Producer, Charlie Greene, claims that Stills said this to him. Greene has said that it was Ahmet Ertegun who came up with the idea of subtitling the single “Stop, Hey What’s That Sound” to make song more recognizable. The song was performed at Buffalo Springfield’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Neil Young did not participate.

In the song, the phrase “There’s a man with a gun over there” makes the statement that violence should not be used to affect social change. I used it as the title of this week’s article to convey the same sentiment about violence and religion. It is obviously unacceptable to use violence to affect people on religious issues.