Koleinu The Price of Peace
Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
In a world where random violence seems increasingly routine, and in the wake of a horrific and inexplicable triple homicide that has shaken Newton, Massachusetts (the community where I work and serve as a Protestant Christian pastor), Parashat Pinchas landed heavily on me. I could not shift my attention away from the disturbing passage that opens the parashah. The text continues the story of Pinchas and the apparent reward he receives from God for taking the law into his own hand and murdering two people. Yes, they are flagrantly violating the law, but they seem to be two among many.
I was grateful to see some of the wrestling that Sages have done over the generations in response to this troubling pericope. Post-Biblical commentators didn’t shy away from their discomfort with Pinchas’ vigilantism. Some found significance in the gap between last week’s and this week’s parashah; Pinchas’ violence falls in the previous week’s reading and we have to wait all the way to the following week for the reward to be declared by God. This gap, the commentators posit, highlights the potential dangers of extremism and warns us not to rush to reward extremism.
Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning and Leadership, where I work, recently hosted Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck and filmmaker Abigail Disney to discuss their work and relationship. Schenck and Disney’s partnership parallels Schenck’s shift from staunch advocate for the evangelical Christian anti-abortion movement to fierce opponent of firearms and gun violence. In the lunchtime discussion, both raised the ethical implications of firearms and the troubling vehemence of many evangelical Christians regarding their right to bear arms. Disney highlighted Schenck’s use of the Ten Commandments in his agitating against firearms.
Surprisingly, rather than turn toward the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” Schenck has chosen to lift up the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4 NRSVue)
Schenck cleverly juxtaposes the second amendment, which is regularly and ferociously invoked by gun advocates in the U.S. as sacrosanct—almost divinely mandated—against the second commandment. In a 2015 interview on NPR, Schenck said: “In our respecting of the Second Amendment, we have to be very careful we don’t break the second commandment, which is the commandment against idolatry. And we can set up our own idolatry when we declare ourselves the arbiters of right and wrong and especially of the value of a human life.” 1 I continue to be struck by the last part of that quote. When does our zeal for rightness or our certainty of the righteousness of our cause—even scripture or our religion itself—become an idol in itself that serves to separate us from God rather than making us more godly?
Over the years, a variety of fiction writers have explored the idea that damage is done to a person’s soul when they intentionally take a human life, arguably the most supreme act of evil. More recently, theologians and therapists working with military veterans have given us the language of “post traumatic stress disorder” and “moral injury” to better understand the suffering that is borne by those sent off to war. Biblical commentators reflecting on this parashah noted that “a person is never the same after [s/he] has shed blood, no matter how justifiable the cause.”2 This truth is perhaps represented in the Torah scroll in Numbers 25:11 where the letter yod in Pinchas’ name is written smaller than the other letters. The God within us (represented by the yod) is diminished when we commit violence.3
But Pinchas is commended by God for his “zeal among them on my behalf,” thereby assuaging God’s jealousy and rage and preventing the complete consumption of the Israelites. God therefore grants him a covenant of peace and promises perpetual priesthood for him and his descendants. Is such the world God desires? One where individuals are empowered to act decisively and with fatal force whenever and wherever they may see grave wrongdoing? I cannot believe that such could be the will or vision of God. Especially when read in conversation with the rest of the Tanakh.
True peace is something that must be carefully, lovingly, and dialogically cultivated. It cannot be established or maintained by brute force or top-down decisions. Peace that is guaranteed by fear of deathly punishment or reprisal is not true peace. Some commentators note that this, too, is represented in the text of the Torah—the letter vav in the shalom of the following verse (Number 25:12) is written with a break in the stem, suggesting that the peace one achieves by destroying one’s opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace.
So, what are we to do with this teaching? I find some inspiration in yet one more interpretation offered by the Ktav Sofer. Perhaps God is not rewarding Pinchas’s extremism by making him and his descendants priests. Rather than a reward, perhaps the priesthood is an antidote to the extremism: requiring that Pinchas will have to curb his violent temper in order to truly inhabit his priestly role. Perhaps, as Ha-amek Davar notes, the role of priest will protect him from those destructive impulses that live within him. And perhaps the priesthood offers Pinchas a way to atone for his taking of two lives no matter how justified or divinely-sanctioned his actions may have been or at least seemed.4
I find myself saying this all too often to my congregation in my Sunday sermons, but it bears repeating. We live in a complicated, messy world. We humans—despite our best of intentions and attempts to do what is right and keep each other in line—too often fall short. We make mistakes. We get it wrong. With that in mind, I find it even more important that we flawed human beings take extra care with our decisions, particularly when life and death are involved. We must regularly remind ourselves and each other that there is a terrible cost to taking a life, however we may want or need to justify it. And that, although peace is a lofty goal, true peace cannot be bought through violence. History has taught us that truth again and again. May we learn something from these lessons. And may we, as St. Francis of Assisi so wisely prayed many centuries ago, seek to be instruments of God’s peace, sowing love where there is hatred, seeking to understand more than to be understood, offering pardon where there is injury, and seeking to love more than be loved. For it is in pardoning that we ourselves are pardoned. May it be so.
1NPR interview (October 10, 2015).
2Etz Hayim, p. 918.
Rev. Tom Reid is director of the BILI Launchpad Fellowship for Hebrew College’s Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership and pastor of Newton Presbyterian Church in Newton, MA.