Finding the Right Moment for Justice by Lauren Shaps
What happens when someone vehemently opposes the actions, beliefs or behaviour of another person or group? A shockingly horrific answer to that question is the maim-murder-and-mayhem approach of a group like Islamic State, which is only too ready to annihilate anyone they categorize as an infidel. Another example with tragic results was the recent hate-related shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in the United States.
At the other end of the spectrum is the kumbaya, let’s-all-hug-and-look-the-other-way approach. That view of the world causes a person to think twice before challenging things that are truly wrong. When everyone goes along to get along, abuse and corruption fester like a noxious wound. One only needs to look at the allegations of bribery at FIFA, the international football (aka, soccer) federation, to see an example of what happens when good people are afraid or reluctant to speak up.
Where do average folks like us fit in? We certainly would not want to ignore or collude with bad behaviour, but we also understand that vigilante justice is the wrong way to go. Tragically, we have witnessed over and over that just because someone is absolutely convinced they have a hold on the truth doesn’t make them right and often makes them dangerous.
Therefore, it is surprising to read about G-d’s response to the actions of Pinchas ben Elazar as described in this week’s parsha, Parashat Pinchas. Last week’s parsha ended with some of the Israelite men chasing after the women of Moab, cavorting with them and worshipping their idols. The desire for idolatry was not based on a well-thought-out belief system; rather it was an excuse for the sexual pleasures that went hand in hand with idolatrous practice. Zimri, one of the tribal princes of Israel, engages in a public display of outrageous behaviour in front of Moses and the entire nation. Everyone is stunned into silence, except for Pinchas, who quickly consults with Moses and then acts to take the lives of Zimri and the Midianite woman, Kozbi.
The Torah tells us very little about the day-to-day lives of the Jewish nation in the desert. If this incident is recorded for posterity then there must be something important for us to learn. Fortunately we have the teaching of our Sages throughout the generations to help us get a handle on this extreme incident.
The Torah refers to Pinchas as a kanai, which is translated as zealot. We associate the word zealot with images of an extremist, a militant, a maniac using violence under the banner of religious conviction. My husband’s teacher, Rabbi Henach Leibowitz, of blessed memory, who was the head of the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Queens, New York, explains that kanai has a different connotation. Pinchas didn’t act on impulse or anger. He saw the brazen behaviour of Zimri and was worried about the impact on his fellow Israelites, who saw what was happening but did not respond. A zealot who doesn’t care about others isn’t serving G-d, he is creating his own Torah and serving only himself (“Majesty of Man,” based on the teachings of Rabbi A. Henach Leibowitz).
The Torah is not encouraging aggression, but rather showing us Pinchas’s ability to use this unique trait at the correct moment and in a precise way. In fact, the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, Poland, 1787-1859) says that although Pinchas acted correctly in this particular circumstance, his actions disqualified him from succeeding Moses as the leader of the Jewish people. That role was given to Joshua because a leader needs to be flexible and act with moderation (“Growth Through Torah,” Rabbi Zelig Pliskin).
The Torah tells us that Pinchas was rewarded with a brit shalom, a covenant of peace. It seems ironic that this would be the reward for such an aggressive act. The Torah is reminding us that a person’s default position should always be peace. There are times when one needs to express anger and even rare occasions when one might need to be aggressive, but anger and aggression are highly destructive, especially to the one with those traits. Our behaviour impacts our character and becomes a part of who we are. To prevent this, a person who had to be aggressive in a particular situation should go out of his way to be kind and compassionate every where else (ibid).
We admire the whistle blower and the advocate for the underdog. We know there are times when the test we face is whether to speak out or look the other way. When we read this story we should not think the Torah sanctions vigilante justice or violence over disagreements of belief. Rather the Torah is teaching us that good people cannot be passive. Should a situation arise, we should seek counsel before reacting and use our intellect over our emotion. Concern and compassion for others should always be foremost in our minds. If our default is to be critical, self-righteous and to denigrate others, then we may be zealots, but we are not kanai’im.
We hope and pray that we will never need to act on this lesson but that goodness and justice will prevail. We look forward to the time when we will be blessed with the reward for stepping up to challenge evil, the reward of the brit shalom, the covenant of peace.