D’var Torah – Parshat Pinhas

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It is most fitting that we begin the kayitz of 2013 reading parshat Pinhas.  Pinhas is a troubling figure.  While we celebrate Pinhas’ zeal in defending the honor of God, we also cringe at the savagery of his method (Num. 25:1-7).  The Talmud Yerushalmi reflects this discomfort.  Sanhedrin 9:7 records: “One who cohabits with an Aramean woman, the zealous may attack him. But the sages do not look with favor upon this. Now, was Pinhas regarded unfavorably by the Sages? Rabbi Yuda ben Pazzi said: ‘They were ready to excommunicate him had the Holy Spirit not sprung forward [to defend Pinhas].’”  Though the Rabbis are distressed with Pinhas’ actions, they ultimately choose to understand the Torah as a tale of well applied passion toward the maintenance of the community not as a statement of support of religious vigilantism.  Numbers 25:10-11 explains, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.”  Absent is mention of Pinhas’ methods.  Rather the focus is shifted towards his passion for God.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein writes in the Torah Temimah, “Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God.  In this case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder?  That was why the Sages wished to excommunicate Pinhas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.”  This then is the message of Pinhas.  As Jews our goal is to work to ensure that our lives and our actions are animated by a genuine unadulterated zeal to do good rather than be sullied by petty jealousies and wistful desires.  The challenge that we face daily is how to live our lives within the context of such an essential mission.

We arrived camp this Tuesday as a group of over eight hundred disparate individuals.  Yet as we enter into Shabbat this week we have begun the transformation into a kehillah kedosha, a holy community.  Our success in Ramah is in creating the mindfulness among our campers, staff, and extended family that helps give focus to our individual passions and direction to our lives.  We at Ramah engage in the tangible experience of living collectively, working collaboratively, and acting courageously.  Embodying the passion of Pinhas, we build Jewish community.  May we be blessed with a great summer.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ari Perten

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