Pinchas and the scary friend

My original plan, when I was assigned Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) to offer a dvar Torah, was to skip over Pinchas and his spear and the matter of God and human vengeance. But that’s not how things worked out. I was drawn in to the Pinchas story first by a brief commentary:

And Israel attached itself unto the Baal of Peor [Numbers 25:3]. R. Eleazar ben Shammua said: Just as it is impossible for a wooden nail to be wrenched from a door without loss of some wood, so it was impossible for Israel to be wrenched from Peor without loss of some souls.
– from The Book of Legends (Bialik & Ravnitsky, 628:175)
— based on Babylonian Talmud Eiruvin 19a

I wasn’t so much interested in exactly what kind of idolatry was going on there or how the rebellion against God stopped. What I found most touching was the recognition that change in a community — even one for the better, as presumably steps away from idolatry have to be — has a cost. This image — a wooden nail wrenching part of a door away as it’s pulled out — stayed with me. Then I came across this passage from R. Margaret Holub:

Like many of us, I have a long and checkered career in the enterprise of community. Community has brought me the best and worst moments of my life. There was the community where we lived together on Skid Row, paying ourselves five dollars a week and eating food we “trashed” out of dumpsters while we ran a soup kitchen, a shelter, two clinics, a daycare center and protested the arms race — all on self-righteousness, youth, and adrenaline. There was the “yuppie commune” of six sharing a mansion and pool along with the vicissitudes of our love and work lives; we eventually disintegrated over undone dishes.
— Margaret Holub, “The Good, the Bad, and the People: Some thoughts on Jewish women making community” Lifecycles: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life, Volume 2 (Jewish Lights, 1997).

It’s hard, this business of community: hard to develop, hard to make changes, hard to maintain, and hard to get out when things go badly or simply stop working for some of the people involved.

The story of Baal Peor and Pinchas and the plague is pretty extreme (see Numbers 25). But in one sense I think it’s just part and parcel with the always fraught enterprise of creating community with humans and God in the desert. And I think it’s worth noting that all the fault may not be with humans.

Defects in Creation

There’s an ancient commentary on Numbers 28:15 in this week’s portion: The rosh hodesh [new moon] sacrifice is “one male goat as a sin-offering for God.” Reading “for God” rather than “to God” or “before God,” Simeon ben Azzai says that God seeks atonement and needs human help. (See also “Defects in Creation”) Why? In Genesis 1:16, God first makes “two great luminaries,” and then, in the same verse, “one great luminary to rule the day and one lesser luminary to rule the night.” The moon is unhappy at being diminished. So God says, “Make atonement for Me, for My having diminished the moon.”

Creation is full of fundamental and painful imperfection, from the Fourth Day onward….or even longer than that:

The waters above and the waters below were separated on the Second Day and were inconsolable. Therefore, Rabbi Akiva taught: “Schism is lamentable even when it makes the world habitable.”

Sometimes communities have to part….Jews are always wondering if Reform and Haredi communities, e.g., can still be part of the same understanding of “Judaism”….But even if/when it’s necessary, it’s lamentable. And even God seems unable to organize in such a way as to avoid these fundamentally painful aspects of living with more than one entity.

Praise for Pinchas

I also think it’s worth noting that many commentators — including 20th Century rabbi Tikva Frymer-Kensky — applauded Pinchas for being “zealous for God’s zeal.” She writes: “[Pinchas] empathizes with God’s rage and acts it out. He acts with violence to stop violence, like setting a backfire to stop a wildfire.” But the violence being stopped is God’s. So, I think we may have a case akin to a child mimicking a parent’s behavior in such a way that the parent is shocked into recognition and stopping the behavior.

Rabbi Levi Yitzcahk of Berditchev (18th Century CE) notes that Pinchas could have separated himself from the community and called down God’s justice on the Israelites. However:

His act of zealousness instead of putting him outside the people had placed him squarely in the midst of the people, as alluded to by the word b’tocham, “in their midst.” Pinchas had been instrumental in drawing down blessings from God for his people.
— from Kedushat Levi (Munk translation)

I think it’s a little ironic, then, that our ancestors — like us — struggled so mightily to put some distance, in time and in space, between Pinchas’ act and its aftermath, including the rewards outline in this week’s portion.

Distance from Pinchas

Of course, the rabbis did not like capital punishment — they declared a court that executed one person in 70 years to be “bloody” (See Jewish Virtual Library, e.g.) — and they definitely opposed extra-judicial killings. They had a terrible time with Pinchas’ taking the law into his own hands. And we still see the results.

As this handout notes, tradition tried hard to keep Pinchas’ violence at arms’ length, so to speak. The story is cut in two, told over the course of two weeks, as if to put the violence in the past while the Israelites enjoy their survival, which was based on his act.

Like Israelites who did not ask Pinchas to spear Cozbi and Zimri but nonetheless benefited when the plague stopped, we enjoy a way of life that has come to be through many acts — past and current — of violence outside our control. And those of us who don’t live in war-torn or crime-ridden areas, who don’t experience domestic violence or physical oppression sometimes like to think that violence belongs to another realm, one somehow apart from us. But too many in our community don’t have that luxury. And maybe none of us do….

Hard-Boiled Digression

I want to digress for a moment to consider a common trope in hard-boiled detective fiction: Many fictional detectives have someone I call a “scary friend” — someone on the shady side of the street able to accomplish things the “good guy” cannot or will not.

Some of my favorite mystery writers do this. Many of Walter Mosley‘s mysteries work this way, e.g: When in deep trouble, bookstore owner Paris Hinton finds ex-con Fearless Jones; detective Leonid McGill relies occasionally on an assassin named Hush. And Easy Rawlins has Mouse, his oldest and most dangerous friend.

One thing I love about Mosley is that his characters always seem aware of the cost of engaging with shadier elements, and he never suggests that violence can be employed in such a way that it doesn’t really touch the good guys. In fact, much of the Easy Rawlins series centers around Easy — who has decided that Mouse is, for better or worse, a part of his life — trying to develop boundaries for himself and his family. In the most recent novel, e.g., we hear Easy’s son reciting an oft-repeated admonition: “Mouse is only for if the house is burning down and the fire department is on strike.” (More on Mouse and Pinchas)

But I’m especially fond of a Mosley character who needs no scary friend. In what I think is Mosley’s most Jewish writing, the character Socrates Fortlaw is a seriously flawed man living in a seriously flawed world (see, The Right Mistake). He doesn’t need an outside source to do his dirty work — he’s committed and knows he’s capable of a level of violence that is plenty scary. His challenge is to understand the past and, when faced with similar circumstances, make new choices.

Unique visual midrash: ordinarily an imperfect letter renders a Torah unfit for ritual use
Visual midrash: Is peace ever unbroken? Can we build peace with a spear?

Like whoever decided to write the broken vav in the word “shalom” in this week’s reading, a visual commentary unique in the Torah, Socrates Fortlaw knows that the only peace we’ve ever known — so far — has always derived from somebody’s spear. We can’t pretend it belongs to someone else; we have to learn how to go forward knowing what we know.
(For more on scribal arts and oddities in the Torah see this scribe’s page.)

Not Necessarily Gone

“After the plague –” the people are told to count males of arms-bearing age. But the census of Chapter 26 lists women and men long dead as well. It also includes the rebellion of Dathan and Abiram and the strange fire of Nadav and Abihu. Verse 64, at the close of the count, specifically notes that “Among these was not one of those enrolled by Moses and Aaron” when they entered the desert. But the accounting seems to go out of its way to include people long gone, especially those whose stories are troubling.

Maybe this is a bad sign:

A) that the people still can’t follow instructions, after 40 years; or

B) that, like many communities today, going forward is impeded by old baggage.

Maybe it’s a good sign:

Breaking the Pinchas story across two portions, as noted above, is generally understood as an attempt to isolate his act of violence from the rest of the story. But the episode remains just under the surface as this week’s portion begins: the tiny yod in Pinchas’ name indicates that God is diminished with human violence; the broken vav in the word “shalom” and the odd break where the plague is mentioned all serve to show. (Again, see Pinchas Handout).

These hints all suggest that the past is not necessarily gone.The census here serves a related purpose. Together, the visual commentaries and the census in this portion remind us to be aware of everything we are carrying into the future as we continue to march toward the Promised Land.

dvar Torah given at Temple Micah, Washington DC

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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