Shabbat Pinkhas: How Will You Answer Evil?

This week’s parashah is named for Pinkhas, who acted impulsively and killed two people. Incredibly, the Torah records G-d’s appreciation for the deed, awarding Pinkhas a divine and eternal “covenant of peace” (Numbers 25.12).

The Rabbis of the Talmudic Era were troubled by this passage no less than we ourselves should be. “The law may permit it, but we do not follow that law” (Talmud Bavi, Sanhedrin 82a). They turned away from the horror of the passage; in this case, they did not seek deeper meaning. This may be because they were too concerned to give any opening to the zealots of their own day, against whom they taught and, when necessary, fought.

And yet there is a desire to find meaning even in such a deed – witness President Obama’s eulogy for the nine killed in Charleston, in which he described the killer as “being used by G-d”. That is a credible theology for some, including some Jews: our own prophets regard the Babylonian Empire, which destroyed Jerusalem and nearly erased the People of Israel from history in 586 BCE, as G-d’s instrument to punish us for our sins.

But there is a way to think about this more deeply,  toward a different, and perhaps more challenging, theology of the evil that was done in Charleston and in too many other places and times in human history. It is this: Judaism teaches that all is one and all is included in the all-embracing reality that we call G-d, the Universe, Eternity, All, Ayn Sof (Without End). If we take this seriously, we must confront the reality that Dylan Roof is not a demon any more than Pinkhas was; both of them are expressions of a truth – however disturbing – about us and our world.

Put another way: family systems psychology teaches that the member of your family who is acting out, getting in trouble, making everyone angry or uneasy or sad, is not the cause of the family’s problem, but the symptom of something else that is not being addressed. Apply this to the human family, or the world family of all that is, if you will: evil takes root because of a larger dynamic in which it is able to find room to flourish. It is possible for us to live an entire lifetime distracted from those dynamics, that underlying narrative of our lives, but that does not mean that it does not exist – only that we exist more comfortably when we don’t think about that today.

What do we do when events silence us with horror? too often we feel enervated and withdraw, which is what Moshe our leader did in those moments when Pinkhas was committing his murders. We may feel that, as Yeats wrote, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst / are full of passionate intensity.” 

But our Jewish tradition teaches that in the moment when we must face the evil that exists in our lives, we must act to nurture the good – in ourselves, in each other, in our society – because action for good is the only antidote. But – and here’s the difficulty – we do not vanquish evil by being nice to each other. Unless we are willing to look fearlessly for the underlying narrative of which this evil is only a symptom, we are doomed to continue to suffer from it.

Why does G-d give Pinkhas and his descendants a “covenant of peace”? It is taught that Pinkhas is meant to stand as an enduring example to us all of what happens when we do not work for peace, when we are not aware that our wholeness depends on that of those with whom we share this world in so many unspoken, elemental ways.

The Talmudic teacher Beruriah taught that we are not to pray for the death of an evil-doer, but to pray – and act – for such a one to repent. May we all find our own way toward thoughtful acts that will bring the world closer to the wholeness and peace that will finally, one day, end evil, and bring evil-doers into the peace of a whole, healed world.

 

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