Torah from around the world #23

by Rabbi Dr Tony Bayfield, Head of the

Movement for Reform Judaism

in Britain

“We are getting breaking news of a terrorist outrage in Shittim.  Reports say that a Midianite woman has been brutally murdered by an Israelite.  We can go over to our correspondent in Shittim, Mo Ab.”

“There’s uproar here in Shittim.  The Israelites, who’ve moved in on Moab territory from the desert, have been peaceful up to now.  One of their younger leaders was enjoying the hospitality of a priestess called Cozbi when an Israelite rushed into her tent, speared them where they were already joined and rushed round the camp brandishing them over his head like a kebab.  This is an outrage.  The local population is furious at the abuse of hospitality.  I fear revenge attacks.”

“Do we know why?  Has anything been heard from the Israelites?”

“Yes, the Israelite leader Moses – he’s married to a non-Israelite woman himself – has issued a statement naming the attacker as Pinchas.  He’s a fanatical supporter of Yahweh, utterly opposed to our gods and is being hailed as a hero.  The Israelites’ statement denies murder and says that Yahweh is rewarding Pinchas with hereditary priesthood status.”

That is, of course, the story of Pinchas which straddles two sidrot, last week’s and this week’s.  But it’s the story told from ‘the other side’.  Not how we saw the incident but how the incident was seen from the perspective of the Moabites/Midianites.

Our behaviour can often look very different from other people’s perspective.  That is true of collective behaviour – how Jewish actions look to non-Jews, and it is also true of the individual – we are often utterly perplexed by how others ‘misread’ or ‘misunderstand’ what we have said or done.  There is a natural human tendency to reject the alternative perspective as bizarre, unfair, the wrong end of the stick.

Sometimes it is.  They aren’t us and they aren’t standing in our shoes.

But it’s also a very important and sobering corrective.  Particularly when we take the law into our own hands and act out of righteous or self-righteous indignation.  Perhaps that’s the most important message that can be taken from one of the Torah’s darker stories.

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