Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah # 41: Pinchas (Phinehas) B’midbar (Numbers) 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: M’lakhim Alef (1 Kings) 18:46-19:21
B’rit Chadashah: 1 Corinthians 5:6-8
This parashah continues the narrative from the last one with the account of Pinchas (dark skinned) who is very zealous for the L-rd and runs out of the assembly to kill an Israelite who openly brings in a Midianite woman into his household (Num. 25:6-9). The first paragraph sets the stage, telling us that the Israelites were whoring with the women of Mo’av who invited the people to sacrifice to their gods. This narrative illustrates how serious G-d takes marriage to a person who professes to be a believer in the G-d of Israel and not just any god. He will not tolerate His people bowing to or offering sacrifices to anyone but Him. Adonai is a jealous G-d (Ex.20:2-17) but His jealousy is for His people; a love that cannot be compared to anything of which we humans can understand. The problem in this narrative is that Israelites were choosing to associate with pagans on an intimate level; individuals who held conflicting beliefs and values; different gods, resulting in idolatrous behavior. Pinchas ‘b’khan’o’et kinati (in his zeal for My zeal) averts the wrath “so that I didn’t destroy them in My own zeal,” says Adonai. Kana’a is an Aramaic or Syrian word which means “to become intensely red.” This indicates the visible effects of anger on a face.
G-d demands allegiance to Him only (Ex. 20:5). Yet, the children of Israel are lured into assimilating and whoring with the Midianite women. The Midianite princess Cozbi (deceiver) openly seduces Zimri with everyone else watching but not intervening. G-d becomes very angry and a plague breaks out that kills 24,000. Bil’am, who encouraged Cozbi to do this, met a violent end by the sword (Num 31:8). But G-d bestowed the covenant of eternal priesthood on Pinchas (Num 25:13). We must understand the difference between righteous zeal for G-d, and unbridled, soulish behavior often described as being “filled with the Holy Spirit” in some Christian sects expressed as repetitive babbling, trans-like episodes that may include dancing immodestly and falling down in the isles. This type of behavior is a foreign fire much like that described in the narrative of Nadav and Avihu who brought unauthorized fire to the Tent of Meeting. G-d is specific about how he wants us to worship Him and what will happen if we choose our own way. What’s worse is that the Israelites had just been blessed three times by G-d through Bil’am!
In the 40th year, G-d commands a census of the entire assembly of the people 20 years old and older, by their ancestral clans, who are subject to military service in Israel. It is interesting to note that the Torah states “Those twenty years old and over who came out of the land of Egypt, as Adonai ordered Moshe and the people of Israel.” This included the half-Egyptian children of Yosef (Gen. 41:50) who followed the laws of G-d. This brings up an interesting concept for thought in light of the controversy over the national census for the United States. The first census totaled 603,550 and the second 601,730. The greatest loss was from the tribe of Shim’on and the greatest gain to Judah. Interestingly, Zimri was the son of Shalu, leader of one of the clans of Shim’on. Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon. Could this possibly explain the loss of people for Shim’on and the gain to Judah? Rashi holds to this opinion and I tend to agree. Again, those in positions of leadership are held to a higher level of accountability than the individuals they lead. But the final choice is still an individual one with individual accountability.
The policy regarding inheritance is taken a step further when the five virgin daughters of Ts’lof’chad fatherless. Moshe goes to G-d and G-d agrees the complaint that they should also inherit land is legitimate (Num 27:7). The general ruling is that land inheritance goes first to the sons, then to the daughters, then to the father’s brothers, then to close male relatives of the family (Num 27:8-9). Numbers 36:6-9 adds that daughters are to marry within the clan in order to keep the clan inheritance.
Haftarah: M’lakhim Alef (1 Kings) 18:46-19:21
In this Parasha, Pinchas is acknowledged as the first zealot of Yisra’el. In the haftarah we see that this quality still exists within B’nai Yisra’el and is one of the characteristics of a great prophet. As Eliyahu (Elijah) says in 1 Kings 19:10, 14: “I have indeed been very zealous for YHVH Elohim.” There is a difference between being zealous and being reckless. “Zealous” is an adjective meaning full of, characterized by, or due to zeal; ardently active, devoted, or diligent.
Medieval Latin zēlōsus. Note the word “diligent” and “devoted.” Zealous does not imply impulsiveness. The prophet Elijah is the main protagonist of this week’s haftarah. According to tradition, Elijah shared the same soul as Pinchas, the hero of this week’s Torah portion. They also both zealously fought on G d’s behalf, while disregarding the dangers involved.
Following the showdown with the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel which led to the execution of the Baal priests, the evil Queen Jezebel issued a death sentence for Elijah. Elijah fled to the Judean desert and asked G d to take his life. While he slept, an angel awoke him and provided him with food and drink. Re-energized, Elijah went for forty days until he arrived at Mount Horeb (Sinai), and he slept in a cave on the mountain. And the word of G d came to him and asked him for the purpose of his visit. “And [Elijah] said: ‘I have been zealous for G-d, the Lord of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant. They have torn down Your altars and they have killed Your prophets by the sword, and I have remained alone, and they seek my life to take it.”
Elijah was instructed to leave the cave and stand on the mountain: “Behold! G-d’s Presence will pass.” There was a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders, but Elijah realized that G-d was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake followed by fire, but again Elijah understood that not in the earthquake nor the fire was G-d. After the fire there was a subtle silent voice, and Elijah realized that the Divine Presence had appeared.
G-d asked Elijah again for the purpose of his visit, and Elijah repeated his earlier response. G d instructed Elijah to go to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel and to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his stead. These three would continue Elijah’s battle against the Baal.
Elijah followed the instructions and he immediately found Elisha and recruited him as his aide and eventual successor.
There can be no doubt that Pinchas and Elijah were religious heroes. They stepped into the breach at a time when the nation was facing religious and moral crisis and palpable Divine anger. They acted while everyone else watched at best as they risked their lives. There can be little doubt that the mob might have turned against them and attacked them. Indeed, after the trial at Mount Carmel, Jezebel lets it be known that she intends to have Elijah killed. Both men acted for the sake of G-d and the religious welfare of the nation. And G-d himself is called “zealous” many times in the Torah. Yet their treatment in both the written and oral Torah is deeply ambivalent. G-d gives Pinchas “my covenant of peace,” meaning that he will never again have to act the part of a zealot. Indeed, in Judaism, the shedding of human blood is incompatible with service at the Sanctuary (King David was forbidden to build the Temple for this reason: see I Chronicles 22:8, 28:3). As for Elijah, he was implicitly rebuked by G-d in one of the great narratives of the Bible. Standing at Horeb, G-d shows him a whirlwind, an earthquake and a fire, but G-d is not in any of these. Then He comes to Elijah in a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19). He then asks Elijah, for the second time, “What are you doing here?” and Elijah replies using the same words he had used before: “I have been very zealous for the L-RD G-d Almighty.” He had not understood that G-d had been trying to tell him that He is not to be found in violent confrontation, but in gentleness and the word softly spoken. This reminds us of Moshe’s sin of striking the rock versus speaking to it to bring water. G-d then tells him to appoint Elisha as his successor.
More profoundly, the zealot is in effect taking the place of G-d. As Rashi says, commenting on the phrase, “Pinchas … has turned My anger away from the Israelites by being zealous with My zeal,” Pinchas “executed My vengeance and showed the anger I should have shown” (Rashi to Num. 25:11). In general, we are commanded to “walk in G-d’s ways” and imitate His attributes. “Just as He is merciful and compassionate, so you be merciful and compassionate.” That is not, however, the case when it comes to executing punishment or vengeance. G-d who knows all may execute sentence without a trial; but being mere humans, may not. There are forms of justice that are G-d’s domain, not ours.
The zealot who takes the law into his own hands is embarking on a course of action fraught with moral danger. Such action should only be taken in the direst of circumstance when there is nothing else to be done, and no one else to do it. Even then, were the zealot to ask permission from a court, it would be denied.
Pinchas gave his name to the parashah in which Moses asks G-d to appoint a successor. R. Menahem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotzk, asked why Pinchas was not appointed instead of Joshua. His answer was that a zealot cannot be a leader. That requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process. The zealots within besieged Jerusalem in the last days of the Second Temple played a significant part in the city’s destruction. They were more intent on fighting one another than the Romans outside the city walls.
Nothing in the religious life is more risk-laden than zeal, and nothing more compelling than the truth G-d taught Elijah, that G-d is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice that turns the sinner from sin. As for vengeance, that belongs to G-d alone.
Sha’ul is speaking to the Messianic Jewish community in Corinth and he is admonishing them for committing sexual sins that even the pagans condemned; living with a stepmother and being arrogant/proud about it. Furthermore, no one did anything to remove such an individual from the community. Sha’ul uses the analogy of the Pesach Seder to illustrate his point; “Don’t you know the saying, ‘It takes only a little hametz to leaven a whole batch of dough?’ Get rid of the old hametz, so that you can be a new batch of dough, because in reality you are unleavened. For our Pesach Lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed. So let us celebrate the Seder not with leftover hametz, the hametz of wickedness and evil, but with the matzah of purity and truth.”
This narrative shows us that G-d has not changed, and we are to remain consistent in our behavior. Although our society advocates and promotes behaviors and beliefs that are in complete contradiction to G-d’s instructions, we are not to assimilate into such a paradigm or even support them. There are peaceful ways to oppose what we are seeing as a total degradation of G-dly values and mores and we are to involve ourselves in such opposition based on examples such as are in our parashah describing what G-d did to those Israelites who passively watched such sinful rebellious behavior against G-d. Individuals and the community were held accountable then, and this will be the case in the future.
Pinchas managed to halt YHVH’s anger by killing the perpetrators. YHVH blessed him and his line with covenant of peace. The word peace, shalom in Hebrew, is written with the letter vav. In the Torah, this particular vav is written with a small gap between the top and the rest of the letter. Why” The sages say it is because YHVH wanted to show us that although peace was achieved, it wasn’t complete because two people died in the process and every life is sacred.
Rabbi Tamah Davis -Hart