Torah from around the world #123

By Rabbi Fred Morgan, Senior Rabbi,

Temple Beth Israel

, Melbourne, Australia

Pinchas opens with one of the most confronting stories in the Torah. The tale actually begins in the previous week’s portion,


. The Israelite men are seduced by the Moabite (also called Midianite) women. They engage in orgiastic sex, an idolatrous practice that is definitely contrary to the mitzvot that Moses has given them. As a result, a great plague breaks out among the people.

Pinchas, son of Eleazar in the line of Aaron the High Priest, takes the law into his own hands. He grabs a spear and with a single blow kills an Israelite man and the Midianite woman with whom he is having sex (we are even told their names: Zimri of the tribe of Shim’on, and Cozbi daughter of Zur of Midian). This precipitous act of zealotry ends the plague, but it leaves Moses, who did not step in quickly enough to avert the plague, in an awkward position. Does he reward Pinchas for his intervention, or does he punish him for an act of manslaughter?

Pinchas’ violent intervention must have reminded Moses of his own zealotry 40 years earlier in Egypt. The story is told in Exodus 2:11-12. As a young prince on an outing from Pharaoh’s palace, Moses spies an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave. He looks to see if anyone is ready to act and seeing “that there is no man”, he intervenes, striking and killing the overseer. [The use of “man” in expressions such as this is idiomatic and not intended to be gender-specific; so it is throughout this drash.]

The violent acts of both Moses and Pinchas are expressions of unrepressed passion in the face of what they perceive as injustice. They would undoubtedly defend their actions, arguing that their actions were necessary to secure and preserve the well-being of others. They both act without restraint to rectify an unbearable situation, having ascertained first that “there is no man”, no-one else to take up the challenge of the moment. They would probably quote Hillel in

Pirkei Avot

2:6, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

The Babylonian Talmud (


82a) imagines Pinchas appearing before the Court to defend his act of manslaughter. It pictures the Court’s response: Pinchas, you may be able to argue that halakha permits what you’ve done, but we do not follow that halakha!  That is, according to the strict letter of the law Pinchas may be able to defend his zealotry, but this kind of behaviour is unacceptable in Israel. The Talmudic author recognizes that Pinchas’ spontaneous act of violence is dangerous to society, however justifiable or defensible it may be in terms of the context in which he acted.

Moses came to recognize the limits that he transgressed when he precipitously defended justice as he saw it. In fleeing Egypt and spending 40 years as a shepherd in Midian, Moses has plenty of time to rethink his violent behaviour, that instant when he lashed out at the Egyptian overseer and buried him in the sand.

Moses never completely masters his violent streak; it comes out at moments when his sense of fair-play is threatened, for example, when he strikes the rock at Meribah. But in situations in which people are involved, he holds back even when provoked. Such is the situation with the Moabite women; Pinchas sees that “there is no man,” that Moses is reticent to act, and he steps forward with spear in hand. Moses probably feels empathy with Pinchas at that moment, but he knows that what Pinchas does threatens the very basis of the society he is trying to create, a society built on justice.

The solution that God comes up with for Moses’ dilemma is masterful. Pinchas is not punished. On the contrary, he assumes Aaron’s mantle as priest and peace-maker. He becomes rodef-shalom, pursuer of peace. It is Pinchas who must utter the words of peace – the priestly benediction – over the people. Like Moses, he must learn to transform his passionate sense of justice into actions that will model the kind of peaceful society he seeks to create.

The story of Pinchas is, as we know, an eternal story. We today also struggle with questions of peace, justice and violence. In Australia there are debates over human rights issues as diverse as refugee welfare and marriage equality, and each issue engenders intense passions. People use the crudest language in speaking about those who hold views different from their own. They would strike out at their opponents if they were in the same room rather than debating over the internet. Indeed, a couple of days ago there were fisticuffs in the Parliament in Canberra. The two MPs clashed over immigration policy.

Every time we enter the arena of social justice, we are confronted by human rights issues that test our patience. When we look about and see “there is no man”, we feel called upon to be a mensh – to confront the wrongs that kindle our passion. Lashing out at the apparent oppressors is certainly one possibility.

Is it also possible to be passionate and peaceful at the same time?  Is there an option available to us to pursue justice by using peaceful means?  Are there instances in which a violent response is justified; and even if it is justified, can we afford to act with violence?  Are peace and justice (ir)reconcilable?  And is it really possible to match our words with our actions, so that by uttering words of peace we truly become pursuers of peace?

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