Pinjás 5777 – English

Rabbi Gustavo Kraselnik
Congregacion Kol Shearith Israel
I must admit I am always slightly uncomfortable about facing the story of Pinchas. Its lineal reading might be a case for religious extremism. 
At the end of the previous Parashah, when the orgiastic pagan ritual between the men of Israel and the women of Moav is moved to the center of the Israelite camp by Zimri, prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Kozbi, daughter of a renowned Midianite leader, Pinchas intervenes piercing them both with a spear (Num. 25:6-8).  

At first sight, the Torah finds merit in this. His decisive action stops the plague (which had already cost the lives of 24.000 Israelites), and at the beginning of our Parashah, he is rewarded with a Brit Shalom – a Pact of Peace – and both him and his descendants are granted perpetual priesthood.
Pinchas is perceived as a defender of religious orthodoxy to such an extent that, during Joshua’s time, when two and a half tribes settled on the other side of the Jordan and began building a shrine to make offerings to God, the other tribes sent a delegation led by Pinchas himself to see how ‘kosher’ what they were doing was (Chap. 22).
I am uncomfortable with the story of Pinchas because a quick association of ideas might be used to legitimize the use of violence in the name of God. Our own reality shows that being like Pinchas seems to be in style. How many religious leaders strut around with their barely contained spear (physical or virtual), ready to pierce anyone who thinks or acts differently… 
I don’t like Pinchas, but it comforts me to know that the sages did not appreciate his behavior either. In a passionate discussion where they expand what is narrated in the Torah, the Babylon Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) ends up claiming that his action was correct, but nothing must be learned from him and he must not be used as a precedent. 
The Jerusalem Talmud (id. 48b) claims that Pinchas acted against the will of the sages, and in one of their opinions, they even wanted to excommunicate him, but the intervention of the divine spirit guaranteeing the pact for his descendants made it impossible. 
The Masoretes (7th-10th century), the teachers in charge of consolidating and defining the precise details of the biblical text and its writing, also subtly showed their critical opinion on the subject.
On one hand, at the beginning of the Parashah (Num. 25:11), they wrote the letter Yod in Pinchas name smaller, hinting that when we act with violence – even if it is justified – the presence of God, represented by the letter Yod, is diminished. On the other hand, the letter Vav in the word Shalom – peace – in the next verse, is broken, reminding us that a peace obtained by means of violence is not a whole peace. 
Some medieval commentators see the granting of priesthood to Pinchas as an antidote, more than a reward, to his radicalism. The Chumash Etz Hayim cites the Ktav Sofer (Slovakia, 19th century): “He will have to heal himself of his violent temper if he wants to fulfill his role as Cohen.”
And in an even subtler reading, I would dare to say that the Torah itself does not agree too much with the actions of Pinchas. In our Parashah, which carries his name, Moses picks Joshua (not Pinchas) as his successor, “a man of spirit” (Id. 27:18). Also, we are told the case of Tzlofachad’s daughters, victims of a tremendous injustice (they were not allowed to inherit their father’s lands), who present their case to Moses in a correct and civilized manner, and who receive a favorable outcome. Thus, we are shown that the peaceful resolution of conflicts is a legitimate and desirable path. 
In the historical memory of our people, Pinchas might have been recorded as a jealous defender of the faith, but he never became a role model. 
Our archetypes are Abraham and Moses, those whose weapons were education and commitment to the law, and who had such steady convictions that they were even capable of arguing with God himself.
Shabbat Shalom