This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl
From this week’s Torah portion, we can learn two different and enduring values of Jewish tradition and one ongoing reality of the Jewish people. Let me break it down for you into three points.
Point #1: The first value is embedded in Numbers 25:11 where God praises Pinchas for his passion in eliminating an Israelite who is cavorting sexually with a Midianite woman in public. He praises Pinchas for his passion “among them,” meaning among the people of Israel. Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz interprets this phrase to mean that although Pinchas acted in a bold manner, he did not separate from the people of Israel. The concept endures, although as we shall see, his action is open to scrutiny.
This enduring concept is summarized in the words of Hillel much later in the first century C.E. Hillel says in Pirke Avot, “Do not separate yourself from the congregation.” This can mean many different things. It means that if the entire congregation stands up during worship, you should, if you are able, also stand up. We have to maintain a sense of community on more serious matters too, which is never as easy and rarely happens, but it still essential to our survival.
Point #2: The second value is even more complicated, and here in a way, Pinchas, while he does not separate himself from the community, takes a step no one else had the courage to take. He executes both the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in one fell swoop. God praises him as we have just seen, but Rabbinic tradition questions his action by separating the act in the previous Sedra from the reward he receives which is in this Sedra. This separation suggests, they say, that vigilantism and zealotry may have a place and time, but cautions us never to rush toward extremism. It seems like good advice in today’s world whether for an individual or a country. A further reminder not to rush into extreme behavior is that God rewards Pinchas with a “covenant of peace.”
Taken a couple of steps further as Rabbi Harold Kushner does in the below-the-line commentary in Etz Hayim, our Conservative Chumash, the “Yod” in Pinchas’s name in verse 11 is written smaller in the Torah Scroll to tell us that even justifiable violence diminishes us. Finally, in verse 12 in the Torah Scroll, there is a break in the “Vav” in the word “Shalom,” reminding us again that while extreme actions may bring short term success, in the long term that success will be incomplete.
Point #3: This is about an ongoing reality in Jewish life everywhere. When Korach and his band are swallowed up to put an end to the rebellion, “the sons of Korach, however, did not die” (Numbers 26:11). The Rabbis explain that the original instigators of the rebellion were eliminated but that Korach-like people will continue to flourish. As Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen reminds us there will always be people “undermining peace, harmony and fellowship among mankind.” If the troublemakers will continue to be present from one generation to the next, then it is necessary make certain that constructive people who want to build harmony and peace in the world will also be present in generations to come.
I regret that there are too many on this earth who continue to sow discord, hatred and violence among us. I regret even more that some of the Korach-like people are among our own Jewish people, just as they were in this Biblical story. Recent events in Israel bear this out, but there are just as many of these destructive individuals and groups everywhere on the globe.
While I am not intending to connect each of my three points to the others, I would say that community solidarity despite our differences is illustrated in my first point. As to my second point, that kind of solidarity on a communal, national and global level would lessen the chances of extreme actions with only temporary results. And finally recognizing that evil-doers will never disappear (unless a Messiah comes to us or we come to a Messianic Age) as in the third point, both the first and second points will continue to remain operative for the foreseeable future.