Pinchas: Murder By the Tabernacle

In 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 Moses and the community at the entrance to the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. God gives Pinchas a bracha of shalom (a blessing 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. For many of us, this is a difficult outcome to deal with. Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 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 Deuteronomy 21:18-21 we have the law of 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 stating 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 blessing of peace that God gave to Pinchas. Usually a blessing in the Torah is not necessarily something you want, but rather, something you need. As the Rolling Stones sing, “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what 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. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, puts forth such an approach to the blessing of peace for Pinchas in his commentary on Numbers 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.