2018-07-04 / Religion Column

Confronting the legacy of Pinchas and his ‘covenant of peace’

Temple Sinai

Parashat Pinchas
Num. 25:10-30:1

Fifty years ago, in the turbulent summer of 1968, my father was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. On April 4th of that year, just before Passover, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and murdered, leading to extensive race riots in many cities around the country. On June 6th, just after Shavuot, Robert Kennedy was murdered as well by a young Palestinian angry at his support for Israel in the previous summer’s Six=Day War. Also that spring and summer, students occupying the campus of Columbia University in protest of the Vietnam War were violently rousted by police, while in Vietnam itself, American servicemen reflected the turmoil around them by massacring civilians at My Lai.

As the Jewish calendar rolled into its present position, 50 years ago this week, an elder colleague asked my father what a young man would preach about the parashah of Pinchas in a summer of such violent chaos. My father answered that his message would be, “Don’t be a Pinchas! Don’t take the law in your own hands! Don’t take your anger to the streets, or to other people’s bodies! That would only add to the violence and put you in the middle of it.”

“Funny,” replied the senior man, “I would preach the opposite: Where is a Pinchas to put a stop to this?”

Ever since Pinchas raised his spear, our tradition has grappled with the legacy of Pinchas, and the “covenant of peace” extended him by the Holy Blessed One. Is his elevation to priesthood a reward or a means to restrain him? In the opening of the sedra that bears his name, Pinchas is written with a tiny letter Yud, said to show that internecine violence in His name diminishes the Almighty (represented by the first letter of the Divine Name); and the word “shalom” (peace) in that “covenant of peace” is written with a broken-stemmed letter Vav, as if to say that shalombayit imposed at the point of a spear will always be fractured and disjointed.

In the latter days of the Second Temple, there arose a group that chose the path of Pinchas. Known to the historian Josephus and the Talmudic sages as the Zealots (kana’im, a root used four times in three verses spoken by God about Pinchas in our reading), they advocated active revolt against the Romans, and like Pinchas himself they were not ashamed to turn the tools of war against fellow Jews in pursuit of their aims. In the Talmud’s telling (Gittin 56a), the Zealots burned a 21-year supply of food stores during the Roman siege of Jerusalem to force the city’s residents to fight rather than try to wait out the siege or negotiate peace. The outcome was not a “covenant of peace,” but starvation and death in the city, destruction of the Holy Temple, and 2,000 years of exile for our people. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we always read the portion of Pinchas within a few days of the 17th of Tammuz, the date daily sacrifices in the Second Temple ended forever, and beginning of our Three Weeks of summertime mourning.

The moral of the story is that there may be times in history that call for a Pinchas, as a rabbi said 50 years ago; but if ever you feel that it’s the time for a Pinchas or that you are the Pinchas for the time, know that the odds are very long and the stakes are very high, and think again. s

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