This week's parashah begins with a text that connects acts of zealotry with the blessing of peace. How can we possibly make sense of this? Fortunately, those who have come before us have wrestled with this piece of Torah as well.
In the terrible story told at the close of last week's parashah, an Israelite man (Zimri ben Salu) brought a Midianite woman (Kozbi bat Tsur) into the Israelite camp. Pinchas, in a fit of zealous rage, followed the couple into their private chamber and stabbed them both through the stomach.
The late Nehama Leibowitz, a noted Torah scholar and educator, was clearly disturbed by the horrific event. In "Studies in Numbers," Leibowitz described the incident this way: "In his zeal for his God, he [Pinchas] slew a man on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all the procedures of judicial examination prescribed by the Torah, which in practice render a conviction well nigh impossible. His deed of summary justice, taking the law into his hands, constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angle."
Yet, inexplicably, the Torah rewards the terrible incident with a promise of peace. "Pinchas…has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…Say, therefore, 'I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites'" (Numbers 25:11-3).
The classical commentators on this text struggle mightily to explain how an act of impulsive rage could be rewarded by God with a "covenant of peace." In fact, one view in the Jerusalem Talmud suggests that the leaders of the Israelite community wanted to excommunicate Pinchas for his murderous act, to be sure that others would not be tempted to emulate him. Only the Torah's explicit words of blessing kept them from condemning him, as they wished to.
Other commentators suggest that the "covenant of peace" is not a reward at all. How could the Torah offer peace as a reward for murder? Rather, in this view, God's promise of a "covenant of peace" is offered to Pinchas in full awareness of his propensity to impulsive rage. Here, the covenant of peace is offered as a way of protecting Pinchas against his own violent nature, as a kind of medication for the hatred raging in his soul.
Consider, for example, the view of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin in the biblical commentary Ha'amek Davar, quoted by Leibowitz: "The Divine promise of a covenant of peace constitutes rather a guarantee of protection against the inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being without due process of law is liable to cause."
The story of Pinchas is profoundly disturbing, and the notion that the Torah should reward his hateful, immoral behavior is even worse. So I am comforted to study the words of commentators who seem pained to find models of violence and hate in the Torah, and who seem to yearn for teachings of peace and wisdom in every word of Torah. After all, the rabbis teach that the Torah is a Torat chesed, a "Torah of lovingkindness." If a piece of Torah does not appear to teach lovingkindness, then we must wrestle with it until we find a way to understand the loving wisdom within it, otherwise, how could it be Torah?
In these difficult days for our people, we are so in need of teachings of loving wisdom. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are dying, victimized by acts of vicious hate. And in this climate of terror and trauma, some of our people are moved to their own thoughts, words and acts of vengeance and impulsive rage.
At this moment, we cannot know how and when the present cycle of violence will end. But we must never forget that, as partners to God's covenant, we must never allow ourselves to indulge our own hateful instincts — not in our speech, and certainly not in our deeds.
If we repudiate our people's covenant of peace with God, if we forget who we are, then we will have lost everything.
May the story of Pinchas somehow help us to recommit to our people's covenant of peace with God.