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Numbers Wonder Woman and Pinchas: The Persistent Appeal of Zealotry

By Rabbi Jim Morgan
Rabbi Jim Morgan

Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10 – 30:1)

In the film Wonder Woman (2017), the heroine, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot, intervenes in World War I on the side of the Allies. She zealously seeks the destruction of Ares, the god of war (the gods are almost Greek, but seem not to be immortal). Along with her multicultural group of allies, she determines that Ares has incarnated himself as the supreme German commander, General Erich Ludendorff. She expects that once she has killed him—-he is, after all, the source of conflict in the world—the war will end and peace will break out. Pursuing Ludendorff relentlessly, she finally defeats him by stabbing him through the heart with her sword. Sadly, the war continues apace: the general is not Ares after all. However, when Ares himself conveniently appears for a final showdown, there is another violent battle. Again, Wonder Woman prevails and the closing scenes show German and British soldiers hugging like the brothers they had forgotten they were.

This comic book fantasy of horrific violence to purge the world of horrific violence is reasonably standard issue, even if real life (as well as the need for sequels) reminds us that evil is never completely vanquished. It is also nothing new. Indeed we see something similar in the run up Parashat Pinchas, where the title character, the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the priest, stabs an Israelite chieftain and a Midianite princess in flagrante delicto, thus halting the plague of God’s wrath that had already killed 24,000 Israelites in the wake of their apostasy with the Moabite god Baal-Peor. In case you’re counting, that is eight times more dead than in the wake of the incident of the Golden Calf.

For this horrific killing, Pinchas receives God’s covenant of peace and eternal priesthood. Because Pinchas is a biblical figure and not a superhero, this reward has bothered readers throughout history. Concerned that we understand both that his act was legitimate and that it is nothing that we should try ourselves, the rabbis insisted that God performed several miracles in its wake (six or twelve, depending on the tradition), including that Pinchas’s spear pierced the genitals of both partners, skewering them together and thus providing proof that they were engaged in an idolatrous act of ritual intercourse. Had he killed them separately, says the Talmud, he would have been guilty of murder.

Like the rabbis, I don’t want to pretend that Pinchas is someone we should emulate, but I also don’t want to dismiss him as a progenitor of comic book heroes, whether in their current cinematic form or in earlier incarnations as, in many cases at least, mid-twentieth-century Golems of masculine Jewish wish fulfillment. What can we take from Pinchas, preferably without the violence and mass slaughter?

The first lines of Parashat Pinchas offer us a clue in the four repetitions of the Hebrew root kuf-nun-aleph: kina, translated variously as passion, jealousy, vengeance, or zeal:

And the Eternal spake unto Moses saying, Phinehas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous with my jealousy in the midst of them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy. Wherefore, say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace: And he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of a priesthood for ever: because he was zealous for his God and made an expiation for the children of Israel. (Numbers 25: 10-13)

Pinchas deserves God’s covenant of peace not for the killing of Zimri and Cozbi (the names of his two victims), but for the result of his zealotry: the reversal of God’s indiscriminate violence against the Israelites.

Rashi’s comment on verse 11 tries to make sense of the odd construction “he was zealous with my jealousy”:

בקנאו את קנאתי – “He was zealous with my jealousy” means “when he executed my vengeance” (more lit., when he avenged my avenging) — when he displayed the anger that I should have displayed. The expression קנאה (zeal) always denotes glowing with anger to execute vengeance for a thing; in Old French emportment.

Rashi suggests that Pinchas somehow took the place of God in executing judgement, that God “should have displayed” a deadly anger against the couple, but instead lashed out at the Israelites in general who, God implies, would have not survived had Pinchas not intervened with a kina that somehow overcame God’s own kina.

The emphasis on the Old French word emportment comes up again in Rashi’s discussion of Numbers 11, where Joshua, Moses’s attendant and successor, learns that two Israelite leaders, Eldad and Medad, were speaking prophetically in the camp:

And Joshua the son of Nun, the attendant of Moses from his youth, answered and said: My lord Moses, forbid them! And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the people of the Eternal were prophets and that the Eternal would give spirit unto them! (Numbers 11:28-29)

In this obviously lighter context, where Moses seems to disavow Joshua’s zeal, Rashi treats kina slightly differently:

המקנא אתה לי – “Enviest thou for my sake?” means, “art thou envying where I should envy”

לי – “For my sake”: the word לי, “for me,” meaning the same as בשבילי, “for my sake”. Wherever an expression of the root קנא (kina) is used it implies that a person sets his heart on the matter, whether it be to take vengeance or to help; — emportement in O. F. (English = zeal) — he holds the thickest (heaviest) part of the load (i.e. he takes the responsibility for carrying out a matter).

Again, we find the notion that an attendant, an agent, an ally, has taken on the task of envy or zealotry or passion in place of the being who should by rights feel it. Yet here, Rashi widens his understanding of kina to include not only envy or vengeance but also help, a concept that doesn’t necessarily involve violence. He also defines emportment as, to adopt a current idiom, doing the heaving lifting. It is almost as though Joshua, by acting indignant on Moses’s behalf, allows Moses to have a more indulgent response to the two men who might be accused of trying to usurp Moses’s status as prophet: Joshua has taken on the jealousy, thereby bringing peace to Moses.

We can apply a similar reading to Pinchas’s zealotry: by fully inhabiting the outrage and passion that God should have (and might have) felt towards Zimri and Cozbi, he relieves God of the need for continuing God’s indiscriminately violent response, thereby bringing about the end of the plague.

Joshua’s example, however, suggests that violence is not a necessary component of kina–indeed the core of it is the lifting of a burden off the person or people to whom you are allied. Such non-violent emportment may or may not avert God’s wrath or bring an end to war (as it does in Parashat Pinchas and in Wonder Woman), but it certainly will increase peace.

Rabbi Jim Morgan was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and serves as Rabbi/Chaplain for Center Communities of Brookline, a division of Hebrew SeniorLife, and as the Rabbinic Advisor for the Worship and Study Minyan at Harvard Hillel.

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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