In last week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak, King Balak sends his prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam tries three times, and each time, with the intervention of an angel and a talking donkey, Bilaam winds up blessing the Israelites instead. Then, at the end of this week’s Torah portion, there is a terrifying story on which I would like to focus.
The Israelites enter the land of Moab, and many of the Israelites have carnal relations with the Moabites, despite God’s strict prohibition against it. In the dramatic end of the Torah portion, when an Israelite leader named Pinchas sees a Jewish man Zimri and a Moabite woman Cosbi caught in the act, he zealously charges them with his spear and kills them. Responding to this action, Moses tells Pinchas that God thanks Pinchas for his heroism and offers him a covenant of peace, promising that Pinchas’s family will be priests for many generations to come.
On the surface of it, this passage seems deplorable. Pinchas doesn’t like the immoral behavior of some of those around him, and so he kills them? And even more problematically, in the Torah, God apparently rewards murderous actions. Yet, as Steven Bayme from the American Jewish Committee writes, in grappling with this passage, our ancient Jewish sages were equally troubled by the Torah’s seeming approval of Pinchas’s over-zealous behavior.
First, in Psalm 106, the Psalmist uses the word for Pinchas’s zeal not to connote violent action, but instead to connote passionate prayer. Second, in the Talmud, the rabbis declare that God gave Pinchas a covenant of peace to “calm his mind and restore his sanity.” In other words, according to these rabbis, the covenant of peace was not a reward, but a kind of drug to restore him to health after his violent actions had demonstrated temporary insanity. Third, the Talmud imagines that Moses wished to excommunicate Pinchas on account of his zealotry.
Finally, the Talmud calls Pinchas a rodef, a violent pursuer that the one pursued has a right to kill in self-defense (Sanhedrin 82a). In other words, the Rabbis felt the need to completely recast the story, teaching us that Pinchas is NOT our role model, but someone who needs healing.
What might we learn from this message today?
The violent events of the past few weeks have felt to me like driving by a car accident – I can’t look away, but I know that looking won’t be good for me. We have witnessed the deaths of Philando Castille in St, Paul and Aaron Sterling in Baton Rouge — two young Black men shot by police, and then the shooting of five police officers in Dallas by a Black man seeking revenge, and another shooting of police in Baton Rouge. Our reactions to these events have been deeply polarized.
We have witnessed terror attacks in France and in Germany, and a coup attempt in Turkey. Again, our reactions to these events have been deeply polarized. It feels easy to blame the other side for all the problems we face, and to hate them. Indeed, too many prominent politicians and pundits encourage this. It makes for good news ratings.
Yet, if the rabbinic responses to this week’s Torah portion teach us anything, it is that our feelings of anger and condemnation can lead to deadly action. The rabbis recognize that we cannot create a society where violence is justified in the name of God or Torah. And, I think they recognized that acting in word or deed out of fierce anger is dangerous.
What does this mean for us?
Watching the news, it is so easy to take sides, feel angry, and assume those who disagree with you are not only wrong, but stupid and evil. I know that in this congregation folks won’t be inclined to act with physical violence, like Pinchas did, but still we may be inclined to act like the Prophet Bilaam, and set out to belittle or curse those with whom we disagree.
Of course, there are moments when we have to make choices. Moments when we need to take a public stand, perhaps through voting, or speaking with a legislator or attending a rally. But the rest of the time, I wonder what it would do for our souls if instead of cursing each other and acting and speaking with zeal. We might seek to bless each other with our curiosity and generosity, assuming good intentions even from those with whom we disagree.
Over the past 10 days, as part of my work for the Essex County Community Organization, I have organized trainings and conversations on the North Shore between community and police, and between white, Latino, and Black people of faith. At each, the tension was palpable. People came in ready for a fight.
And yet, by the end of one of the conversations, I heard an African-American woman say, “You know, I walk around feeling terrified for my sons, like my community is under siege. But what I realized today is that the police feel like that, too. They feel like they are a walking target, like their good work is disrespected, like they are being blamed for problems that our whole society causes.”
I heard a white policeman say, “when I came in here today, I kept thinking, stop all this ’Black Lives Matter’ bs. All lives matter, and you aren’t better than anyone else. Today, I heard people say – all people’s lives matter, and Black lives matter, too. We in the police have to get to know more people in the Black community, so that people feel like we care about the value of their lives.”
I don’t mean to imply that this conversation was life-changing, or that the police and the Black community in Lynn, MA now truly understand each other. But I do believe that it was an important step, and I believe it is important for us to strive to understand why people take the positions they do, and what values and experiences and fears are motivating them. Maybe, just maybe, that can lead us to new pathways of understanding, and, as with Bilaam, our curses will be turned into blessings.