Shabbat Pinhas: Violence Begins At Home

Arch of Titus in Rome depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah and other sacred objects after the destruction of the Second Temple on 2 August 70 CE / 9 Av 3830

מִפְּנֵי מָה חָרַב? מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיְתָה בּוֹ שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם

“why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was sin’at hinam, senseless hatred, among us” – BT Yoma 9.a

This week in the Torah our parashah is profoundly disturbing. Last week’s final lines described what our tradition has defined as an “extrajudicial execution” undertaken by a member of the priestly caste, Pinhas. He took it upon himself to kill an Israelite and a Midianite who were acting in a way that undermined the integrity of the Israelite community at its very heart – the mishkan, the holy Place.

If this religiously-inspired double murder wasn’t difficult enough, the beginning of our parashat hashavua records the approval of HaShem.

פִּֽינְחָ֨ס* בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם 

וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃

Pinhas, son of Eleazar 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. (BaMidbar 25.12)

Jewish discussion around what seems to us in our day to be a highly problematic text has led to justifications, apologetics, and a fair amount of alienation. Interestingly, though, the medieval commentators – Rashi and Ibn Ezra for two – have no problem at all with the passage. 

Each generation and its perspective. Rashi’s teacher suffered the loss of three sons murdered in the People’s Crusade, which killed 12,000 Jews. Ibn Ezra lived in Al Andalus amid the persecution of the Jews by the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties.

And we, what are we to make of Pinhas, we who have seen the damage that killers can do when they justify their behavior by their religion?

Earlier modern generations have turned their faces away. We, however, live in a time of escalating violence of word and deed. What are we to derive from this Torah narrative, we who do not choose to look away?

First, we must make room to mourn that this is our reality. We lock our doors; we fear for our children; we are impatient and angry and stressed with each other and ourselves.

Second, we must resolved not to become inured to it. We must never stop repeating to ourselves This too is Torah and I need to learn it.

It’s significant that parashat Pinhas occurs during the Three Weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and Jewish life in Israel, which we observe at the culmination of this period, on Tisha B’Av. Rabbis who lived through the destruction and the aftermath taught that the destruction of Jewish life in Israel came about not through the violence of the Romans but due to sin’at hinam, “senseless hatred” of one human being for another in our own community.

In other words, it’s not the actual act of violence; it’s the conditions that cause it. Conditions that we either contribute to, or interrupt, with each small act of our own everyday lives. 

More on this next week, with the famous story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. May your observance of this Shabbat be an oasis that brings you moments of shalom – peace and wholeness. And may you believe in your power, small though it be, to interrupt violence in all the small and compassionate ways we know by heart.


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