D’var Torah – Parshat Pinchas

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For What We Do in Moderation, They Will Do To Excess:
A Dvar on Parashat Pinchas and Leadership

by Julie Wohl

If there is one thing that our chanichim and our tzevet (our campers and our staff) are working on collectively and individually at camp, it is this:  We are all leaders and aspiring leaders.  So much of camp is about challenge and growth and becoming.  And, as any good Jewish leader/teacher will tell you, the Torah itself is filled with a great variety of examples and models of leadership. When we look at Moses or Miriam, or Abraham or Sarah, we can find inspiration for ways to lead and how to act; and while on closer examination we may find some troubling behaviors (dishonesty, quickness to anger, impatience, to name just a few), we learn even from this.  We are taught to see that our Biblical ancestors were human, and we are able to learn from both their strengths and their weaknesses.  When faced with troubling behaviors we learn to accept that no one is perfect. It is a good reminder for all of us to be understanding and compassionate with all of our fellow humans. It can also serve to keep our egos in check—for though we may be leaders, we are certainly not perfect. No matter where we are on our leadership journey, we have much to learn.  However, even with this in mind, this week we are presented with a story that on its face presents a highly problematic (to put it mildly) model of leadership.

In our portion, God has sent a plague amongst the Jewish people as punishment for the crimes of assimilation with the Moabite people and for worshipping their gods.  Pinchas, a son of Aaron and a priest, becomes incensed at seeing an Israelite with a Moabite and violently kills them in God’s name (see, I told you it was problematic).  Even more troubling, God seems to pretty clearly endorse Pinchas’s actions.  Our Torah portion says that after the killing, God ends the plague (thus saving the Jewish people), and grants Pinchas a covenant of peace, a brit shalom. We read:

“Pinchas has turned back my hot wrath from upon the Children of Israel by expressing zealously My zeal amidst them. And so I did not finish off the Children of Israel in My zealotry. ” Therefore I say: Here! I give him my Covenant of Shalom; it shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood forever, because of his zealotry for his God, through which he made-atonement for the Children of Israel.”

 As we read through this section of our Torah portion, we may find ourselves surprised or even repulsed. Is this really suggesting that God endorses violence as a path to peace? That killing in God’s name can ever be justified? That one man can kill another in order to make atonement (isn’t that just a little bit like human sacrifice?)  Exactly what lessons are we supposed to derive from this portion?  For answers, we will look more closely at this passage, but before we do that, let’s see what happens next.

After this accounting of violence and reward we are given a list of land divisions by tribe, and then Moses asks God to name a leader for the Jewish people.  Given that the name of our Torah portion is Pinchas, and that we learn that Pinchas’ own violence is what has saved the people from God’s plague, it might make sense that Pinchas would be chosen as leader.  However, it is not Pinchas, but Joshua whom God names as the leader of the community.  Where Pinchas is known for passion, violence and zealotry, Joshua is recognized as “an inspired man,” a wise man.  A true leader of the people. Joshua is no less dedicated to God, but shows his leadership in a more tempered, thoughtful way.

Certainly this is a much more reasonable choice.  But still, what are we to make of Pinchas? How can we understand his actions, and the offering of the Brit Shalom that seems to be a reward for zealotry and violence?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that we might have a different way of reading this text.

Rabbi Waskow suggests that instead of reading this and concluding that God was pleased with Pinchas, we can read the text this way:

“In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy/zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me: in his own blind and jealous rage, he turned his hand to killing. “His jealous/ zealous act opened my eyes, shocked me into shame at what I Myself was doing. That is why I stopped the plague; that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of shalom/ peace.”

In this reading, God recognizes that what the leader does in moderation, the followers will do to excess.  If the leader is harshly critical, the followers may be overtly cruel.  God recognized that in sending the plague as a punishment, His follower, Pinchas, echoed that into an act of greater personal violence.  God took the plague away, not as a reward for Pinchas, but, according to Rabbi Waskow, as an act of t’shuvah. God repented and called off the plague, because the repercussions of zealous violence were shameful.  The rewarding of the Brit Shalom was in fact a remorseful act, a way of bringing about change and peace.  Likewise, in naming Joshua the community leader, God made it clear that passion needs to be tempered by wisdom.

At camp, we are leaders and aspiring leaders.  And part of being a leader is recognizing that our followers will not only do what we say and do, but they will expand upon it.  If we lead with an example of harshness or cruelty, we may find that our campers (or our junior counselors, or our friends, or for some of us, our own children) will learn from that, and expand upon it. But if we lead with an example of love, of compassion and wisdom, our followers will expand upon that as well.  So let us remember the significance of our actions—for those who follow us won’t simply do as we do, they will do more.  Let us all lead by example, in the ways of wisdom, kindness and compassion, and hope that those with eyes upon us will do the same.

Shabbat Shalom!