In order to set up this week’s Torah portion from the Book of Numbers, let me turn back to the Book of Genesis for a moment. When first introduced to Abraham, we are given scant biographical information to help us understand why God selects him to be the first patriarch of the Jewish people. God, after all, must have seen or planted some special quality in Abraham to choose him for such a role.
As if anticipating our question, God provides the answer before destroying the notoriously wicked cities of Sodom and Gemorrah: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”
The character trait that distinguishes Abraham as the progenitor of the Jewish people is his passion for justice. True to his calling, Abraham is appalled that God would destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah without considering the collateral damage to the righteous and innocent, no matter how few. Abraham boldly holds God accountable, saying, “Ha’shofeit kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat — Should not the Judge of all the earth do justly!” Abraham then begins to negotiate with God, to the best of his ability, on behalf of the righteous and innocent, in the name of justice.
Which brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas — a continuation of one of the more troubling biblical stories that began last week. No sooner does the non-Israelite prophet Balaam bless the Jewish people for standing apart from the other nations, than the Israelites succumb to the temptation of the Moabite women and their idols. Disgusted once again by Israel’s behavior, God brings on a deadly plague and directs Moses to instruct the Israelites to impale their kinsman guilty of licentiousness and idolatry.
Taking it one step further than the story of Sodom and Gemorrah, God now instructs the Israelites to join Him in killing their sinful brethren. Pinchas, grandson of the High Priest, Aaron, enthusiastically heeds God’s call.Witnessing an Israelite man take a Midianite woman (bear in mind, Moses is married to the daughter of a Midianite priest) into his chamber, Pinchas, with spear in hand, in broad daylight, follows the couple into the chamber and stabs them both through the belly. At this moment, moved by Pinchas’ action, God stops the plague against the Israelites, after a death toll of 24,000.
God rewards Pinchas for executing justice at God’s behest, saying, “I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and his descendants…because he was zealous for his God.” Rabbi Shai Held asks the question, “Is there room for this kind of vigilantism in the name of God?” No doubt, there is plenty of support for Pinchas’ actions, both in biblical and rabbinic text. Such punishment is considered a deterrent for sinful behavior. At the same time, there is deep discomfort and criticism of zealotry in God’s name. The rabbinic Haftorah selection coupled with this week’s Torah portion, featuring the prophet Elijah, is a strong case-in-point.
Elijah’s life mission (I Kings) is to rail against the rampant idol worship brought into Israel’s Northern Kingdom by the Israelite King Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Queen Jezebel. In a dramatically staged face-off to be witnessed by the assembled Israelite community, Elijah challenges 450 prophets who bow to the idol god Baal. Who will prove more powerful, Baal, or the one God in heaven and earth? Elijah taunts and humiliates the prophets of Baal, laying bare the impotency of their god, while calling upon and demonstrating the power of the God of Israel. Elijah, winning the contest hands down, proceeds to seize and single-handedly slaughter every one of the 450 foreign prophets.
“So deep is the affinity between Pinchas and Elijah, Tanakh’s two great zealot heroes,” Held continues, “that tradition comes to see them as one and the same person.” Even God, in our Haftorah, is disgusted by the extent of Elijah’s zeal. Perhaps, “as lore amongst mohelim has it, this is why Elijah is required (by God) to attend circumcisions. A man who declares without equivocation that the Israelites have abandoned their covenant (berit) with God is forced to observe, again and again, the falsity of his accusations.”
The boldness of Torah, and its enduring relevance in each generation, is manifest in the transparency and tension between contradictory biblical role models. When confronted with God’s anger, and intent to kill those who violate God’s laws, Abraham and Moses step into the breach, challenging God to back away from His zealous vengeance. They exercise human agency, even in opposition to God. When confronted with God’s anger, Pinchas and Elijah follow what they hear as the definitive word of God. Their zealotry is grounded in blind faith.
How expansive the breadth and reach of Abraham’s family tree — whose rings record the millennia of the Jewish people, and whose branches add the faiths of Christianity and Islam. As Abraham’s posterity, let us collectively, through discernment and critical thinking, keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. May we seek God’s way with eyes wide open, eschewing the blindfold of unquestioned faith, keeping zealotry in check. JN
Rabbi John A. Linder is the senior rabbi at Temple Solel.