“How can God award a violent, impulsive murderer with eternal access to Himself?” is exactly the wrong question to ask at the beginning of Parshat Pinchas. וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, “And for him and his descendants shall be the eternal covenant of priesthood because he was passionate to his God and he atoned for all Israel.”
Is violence condoned and rewarded? Do we learn that only one who knows violence can truly understand peace? הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם (Hineni, notan lo et briti shalom), “…herewith I give to him My covenant of peace.” Do violent people such as Pinchas require the strongest, deepest connection to God in order to overcome their innate evil? We have no better answer to this question than we do to why are the ashes of a Para Aduma, Red Heifer, a rare and unnatural occurrence, when mixed into fresh spring water, the only complete remedy for the most severe ritual impurity (not to mention why does contact with a dead human body create this spiritual flaw).
In the case of Para Aduma, we’re taught there is no logical explanation. Indeed, it is the paradigm of חוק (khok), which is the root of the word חקק (khakak), to engrave. In other words, it’s etched (hard-wired) in the very nature of existence, regardless of our ability to understand. More mystically stated, it’s an example of רצון ה׳ (Ratzon HaShem), Divine Will. There simply is no profit to question why.
However, accepting that something is Divine Will doesn’t mean passively conforming with no higher involvement than mere obedience. Rather, we’re commanded to study Torah, even to the point that (וְתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּנֶגֶד כֻּלָּם (פאה א:א (v’Talmud Torah k’neged kulam), “Torah study is equivalent to all of them” (i.e. all of the mitzvot combined) (Mishna Pe’ah, 1:1). If we aspire to more than rote memorization, and our tradition clearly states that this is never adequate (הָעוֹשֶׂה תְפִלָּתוֹ קֶבַע, אֵין תְּפִלָּתוֹ תַּחֲנוּנִים (ברכות 4:4 (Ha-oseh tefilato keva, ayn tefilato tachanunim) (Mishna Berachot 4:4), “…as for one who prays by rote, his prayer is insincere…”) and if it’s worthless to ask why did God create the world the way he did, what are we supposed to learn when we study Torah?
The questions to ask are no longer “why”s, but rather “what”s. Given the fact that this is Divine Will, that God created the universe the way He chose, what can we learn from that reality in order to better live our lives? What can we learn from the fact that in our Oral Torah a unanimous answer/”opinion” is rare indeed?
Definitively, it doesn’t imply that God’s Will is whatever we want it to be. No, God’s will is eternal and not conditional. Rather, exploring the question in each case, in every story and every halacha of the Written Torah presents us with multiple lessons, many of which admittedly are paradoxical. We don’t have a voice in choosing God’s Will for Him. However, we do have a choice to either blindly obey/rebel or to mine as many lessons, ethical, logical, psychological, epistemological, analytical, integral, mystical as our unique neshamot, souls/hearts-and-minds are capable.
I think you are being unfair to Pinchas. Judaism sometimes requires violence. The Torah’s reaction indicates that his actions were necessary to both uphold the authority of Moses and to prevent a calamity if not promptly answered. While he killed two people it was never characterized as murder. That said I agree with you that we need to look at these events and the other events in the Torah and in our lives and explore what lessons we can learn from them.
I wasn’t so much judging Pinchas as using his actions, justified or not (and they are, indeed, exonerated) to illustrate that we can’t assign God’s Will but can only learn from it. To tell the truth, I was being a bit outrageous/facetious to grab attention to the idea.
Indeed, we don’t have the luxury of pacifism. In this case, Pinchas‘ one act of killing saved the lives of the entire Jewish people!
Again, thank you so much for participating in the conversation.
Shabbat Shalom to you.I always appreciate your posts!
Rambam, in his Hilchot Teshuvah, chapter 3, paragraph 8, teaches that: If any Jew denies that even ONE WORD of the Torah is Divinely revealed, then he or she is a heretic [apikuris].
In the same paragraph, Rambam teaches that any Jew who denies the Oral Law* [Torah SheBeAl Peh] is also a heretic [apikuris].
In paragraph 6 of the same chapter, Rambam teaches that a heretic [apikuris] has no place in the afterlife of the righteous, and will be punished eternally.
What percentage of Reform Jews and Conservative Jews qualify for these categories?
Last but not least:
Why should Orthodox Jews who believe that the entire Torah is Divinely revealed, accept the validity of conversions that were performed by Reform Jews who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?
Why should Orthodox Jews who believe that the entire Torah is Divinely revealed, accept the validity of Reform “converts” who reject the Divinely-revealed nature of the Torah?
* NOTE: The Oral Law can be found in:
The Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, the Babylonian Talmud, the Minor Tractates of the Talmud, and ancient midrashim like: Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Mechilta, Tanna DeBei Eliyahu, Midrash Tanchuma, etc, etc.
The challenge in real life, of course, is how to respond to attacks from within on our fundamental premises. Zimri was a נשיא בית אב, a prince of his clan, so certainly learned and well-versed in Torah. How much more damaging was his display than had it been done by someone with no Torah learning at all?
Thank you for joining the conversation.
Shabbat Shalom U’Mevorach!
Great stuff!! Nathan