Certainty is a powerful force. People naturally gravitate to a clear and concise idea. Yet in life, very few times is an idea so clear cut as to equally divide into black and white pro and con sides. Contentious issues are divisive because they seem on the surface to be easily qualified as right or wrong, but delve a little deeper and the nuances of the topic become clear. By seeking a quick or simple fix, it may pay dividends in the short term, but in the long term may be extremely destructive and harmful to society.
When we examine a foundational text such as the Bible, it is very easy to read it literally and not challenge ourselves to delve into the deeper meaning of the text, but rather to remain on the superficial level.
An extremist or close-minded person says, “If that is what it says, then that is what it means.” An open and critical minded person says (or should say), “If that is what it says, then what does it mean?”
In this week’s Parasha, Pinchas, we read about Pinchas, a priest, and the ramifications of his actions from last week when he murdered two people in their tent as they were engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship in the eyes of the congregation of Israel. He is given a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace, and elevated to inherit the office of the High Priest after his father passes away. So the question is: is Pinchas being rewarded for his actions?
On the surface it would seem that he is. The punishment for engaging in sexual relationships with Midianites is clearly stated as death. Pinchas simply carried out the punishment that was called for and then is given the office of the high priest and a blessing from God. In the here and now, the extremist vigilante actions of Pinchas are rewarded. The tradition teaches that this reward is not so clear-cut and it is very uncomfortable with this reward. How is it that Pinchas is given this gift when the priesthood is supposed to embody closeness with God, the leadership of the people and the rule of Law? Acting on his own accord and subverting the rule of Law is not the way to build a just and righteous community. In the long term, this kind of behaviour is destructive to the very society it was trying to protect.
Imagine the consequences if these actions were taken as the norm. Pinchas is technically right for acting in the way that he does, but wrong in the way he carries out his actions. By succumbing to the immediate certainty of his actions, he neglects the longer term consequences. By insisting on only one course of action, on the rightness of only one way, we as a community are diminished.