Torah portion: Love and zeal


Of all advice given to parents, I think the wisest is the following: You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.

I don’t take this to mean that we should dissolve in tears when our children feel pressured by everyday bumps. A skinned knee or a C- in math may be hard to bear but are easily categorized as moments of potential growth. Band-Aids and a late-night dessert remedy most childhood ailments.

It’s when our loved ones experience true, raw, seemingly unbearable heartache that causes those closest to them to feel intense helplessness and insecurity. Rejection, shame, violation, illness, fear … how many times have we said to ourselves, “If only I could endure the pain so my loved one doesn’t have to?” Feeling like trapped lionesses ready to pounce on whomever comes close to our cubs; climbing the walls for answers; when consumed with a fierce loyalty to another, our human desire is to take away another’s pain and bear it ourselves. 

The examples are endless. The parent despairing over the psychological trauma their child faces when bullied by a peer. The relative who physically and emotionally aches after hearing the diagnosis of a sick beloved. The friend who wrings his hands watching a confidante journey through one tumultuous relationship after another. One wishes a needle and thread alone could easily stitch together the tatters of a broken heart. But often the thread is missing and the needle is rusty. We are left wondering if we are meant to wallow in unhappiness, sitting beside our unhappiest loved one.

This is the kind of entangled relationship shared between Pinchas and God. The Torah portion this week relates an astounding incident: After witnessing immoral behavior between an Israelite man and Moabite woman, Pinchas “took a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them … ” (Numbers 25:7-8). While most would assume that Pinchas is reprimanded for his behavior, he is actually rewarded. “Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God … ” (Numbers 25:12-13). God not only condones Pinchas’ behavior, but gifts him a covenant of peace, a symbol of the everlasting bond between Pinchas and the Lord.

What is unique about Pinchas’ connection with God? According to the Talmud, even the angels cannot understand why Pinchas is spared for his murderous conduct. Sanhedrin 82b reads, “The ministering angels ask to punish Pinchas. God says to them, ‘Let him go, he is a zealot, an appeaser of my wrath.’ ” The Gemara continues with the tribes of Israel imploring God to punish Pinchas for his internal hatred of the Israelite man. But in response to their lashing, God directs Moses, “Be the first to extend a greeting of peace to him.” 

Why doesn’t God punish Pinchas? The Talmud references Pinchas’ abundant willingness to appease God’s anger. When Pinchas feels as if God’s name is muddied through immoral actions, he has no choice but rise and ferociously defend the God whom he worships.

Like a parent to a child, a spouse to a beloved, a best friend to another, Pinchas’ unconditional love for the Lord knows no bounds. His actions are certainly impulsive and sinful; but God understands that often intense love takes direction from the heart before the mind.

Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, explains that “Pinchas sprang into action with fiery devotion, spear in hand, risking his life for the honor of heaven. … While B’nei Yisrael (the children of Israel) could manage no more than some tepid tears, Pinchas reacted like a man on fire.”

In other words, Pinchas knows that God is pained by the actions of his children. And while foolish and young and impetuous, Pinchas attempts to assuage God’s hurt by slaying those who sin before him. While I don’t believe God actually condones Pinchas’ behavior, I think God recognizes those relationships in which another’s angst temporarily impairs our vision and adjusts our rationale.

When pregnant with our second child, I remember asking my mother and father (parents to four children), “How will I possibly love this child as much as my first?” And they both looked at me and said, “You’ll see.” And now, I see. There are relationships in our lives in which the love we feel is so powerfully strong and intense that we would do anything and everything to protect those people from harm, to save them from hurt. Of course, it is those same relationships that bring us our greatest joys. As their hearts expand, so, too, ours beat in unison.

May those we love experience God’s radiance and everlasting peace. For it is then when we are truly happy. Amen. 

Rabbi Nicole Guzik is a rabbi at Sinai Temple.

Torah portion: Reframing the Brit Shalom


How can I write a d’var Torah when I can’t stop crying? The horrific news from the Middle East — our boys, their boys, the steady progress of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — I can’t bear to put on paper what is in my heart, as I emerge from texts on Parshat Pinchas extolling an ancient act of zealotry and the horrific violence to which it led. 

And then my Rebbe dies.

When we left Pinchas, in last week’s parasha, he had just driven a spear through the genitals of Zimri, a Hebrew prince, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess. According to midrash, the spear went right through them when they were engaged in an act of public coitus. So sure was Pinchas’ aim, continues midrash, and so great his strength, that he was able to lift his spear with both victims still impaled, hoisting them for view by the community … a Hebrew youth and a young inhabitant of the land, brutally murdered, displayed for the community to applaud, the perpetrator rewarded for his passion (will it ever stop?).

Pinchas receives God’s brit shalom and becomes progenitor of the Kohanim, the priestly line, descended from Pinchas’ grandfather, Aaron. While there is some ambivalence in commentary about Pinchas’ rewards (the Torah itself spells the word “shalom” with a broken letter “vuv”), most applaud his singleness of purpose and alacrity.

As much as I don’t support idolatry or public orgies, I am not a fan of zealotry. In memory of my beloved teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l (and how it hurts to put those letters after his name), I side with the ministering angels, who, according to the Ishbitzer Rebbe in “Mei HaShiloach,” wanted to punish Pinchas for his zealotry, before being overridden by the Holy One. Says God, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion” (Numbers 25:11).

Reb Zalman, a Kohen, presumably a descendant of Pinchas, challenged zealotry. Ordained a Chabad rabbi, he went outside Lubavitch borders to discover “holy people outside of our community … [who] also honored and served the living God.” The father of the Renewal movement, he sought ecumenism in place of triumphalism. Said Reb Zalman, “Once we have seen Earth from outer space, we understand that the Earth is alive, and we are all cells of her body.” He came to see “every religion as a vital organ of the planet.” He added “Shalomi” to his name, strengthening his commitment to the pursuit of peace and embracing the true meaning of “shalom,” as an inclusive wholeness in which all parts are in balance.

Reb Zalman, who died July 3, six weeks short of his 90th birthday, stood with one foot in the 19th century and another in the 21st and conveyed the joy of the Judaism that was swallowed by the horrors of the 20th century. This made the psycho-spiritual riches of Chasidut accessible to an ever-growing community, which embraced an inclusive vision of Judaism dedicated to protect the Earth and all its creatures. Reb Zalman taught the progressive community that Judaism is a spiritual path dedicated to tikkun olam. He made contact with those in other traditions who shared that mystical vision.

Reb Zalman sought to “be a friend to all who respect God.” I question whether it is possible to be a zealot and truly respect God. Zealotry gives rise to extremis and myopia that cannot see what Reb Zalman saw: the image of God in each person. He taught us to walk in God’s ways, with “fervor, not fanaticism,” imagining God’s ineffable four-letter name inscribed vertically upon our bodies.

Not so Pinchas. In the second verse of Parashat Pinchas, quoted above, there are three repetitions of the Hebrew root “kuf-nun-aleph,” which can mean “jealousy,” “rage” or “passion.” Rabbi Lenore Bohm pointed out in 2002 that “among the many attributes of God that our tradition encourages us to emulate, jealousy, passion and rage are not included.” In Deuteronomy and in Talmud Sotah, as well as elsewhere, we are instructed to walk in God’s ways. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and bury the dead. Elsewhere we are exhorted to emulate God’s attributes of compassion. But, says, Bohm, nowhere are we encouraged to behave like the “vengeful, self-declared ‘impassioned’ God,” we frequently encounter in the Torah.

Passion, we are told in The Song of Songs, is a flame of God. Passion lights up the senses, clears the nerve endings, and clarifies and refines perceptions. It spurs us to action. But it is can also be a dangerous intoxicant. It creates xenophobia of heart or mind, which can overwhelm ethics. Without something to bind and contain it, passion can become chaotic and destructive. A brit shalom might not be a reward at all; rather it might be a hotem, a seal, designed as a prophylactic to contain the flame of God so that it can be channeled into the world as a force for good.

Would that, in Reb Zalman’s memory, zealotry could give way to a brit shalom. Then I know he could rest in peace. 

Courage to Lead: Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)


We ended last week’s parasha with the Jewish nation crying as quasi-leaders sinned publicly with Midianite women, who had come into our camp at the Moabites’ behest.

We would have no rest from these Midianites, nor from their Moabite agitators. God ultimately would warn us to avoid such nations utterly — not even to wish Moabites or Ammonites well (Devarim 23:7).

The Moabites and Ammonites stemmed from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. The Midianites were our “cousins,” descended directly from Avraham and Keturah, whom Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Hagar, mother of Yishmael. Although Yitro, high priest of Midian, had proved himself a friend, opening his home to Moshe and even giving his daughter Tziporah to be Moshe’s wife, Yitro had been unique — a theological dissident who alienated his people by rejecting their idolatry. Brazen locals brutalized his daughters at the well.

Our problems with our “cousins” among the nomadic Midianites, the Ammonites and the Moabites continued through the generations. In the Age of Judges, Ehud had to save us from Moav, Gideon saved us from Midianite persecution, and Yiftach later saved us from Ammon. Thus it continued through the era of the Kings: Shaul’s wars with Moav and Ammon (I Shmuel 14:47), David’s (II Shmuel 8:2-3, 23:20) and through the books of Kings. There was no simple Peace Now plan or clever Oslo accord that could solve the interminable and insoluble problem defining Jewish destiny from time immemorial: being surrounded by “cousins” sworn to uproot Jews from Israel.

We saw in last week’s parasha that standing around, crying and wringing hands solved nothing. It never does. Most people knew right from wrong but maybe did not know what to do or lacked the courage to get involved. In the face of national paralysis, Pinchas emerged and, seeing catastrophe consume the camp, acted boldly. For that courage, he was awarded an eternal covenant of the Kehunah (priesthood).

We all see the need for action in the face of compromised Torah values — assimilation, self-hating Jews joining flotillas to Gaza and the like. And we cry. Very few emerge to lead. Yet the Jewish leader’s role often is difficult. Jewish history is replete with stories of rabbis standing alone when the demand of the hour fell on their shoulders, while others buried their heads, grateful for his presence, but remaining cowardly silent, afraid to lose friends or business associates.

The Chofetz Chaim shares his father’s parable of a merchant who is about to travel the seas in search of wealth. He asks others to accompany him, but only one man accepts his offer. They depart, and no one hears from them again until years later, when they both return with precious gems, wealth beyond description. From that day forward, others live with regret that they had not journeyed, too.

Although some rabbinic families are multi-generational, the American rabbinate is not dynastic. Most everyone has the opportunity to attain Torah greatness. In Bereshit 46, Dan numbers only one son (and hard of hearing, at that) compared to Binyamin’s 10. But by this week’s parasha Binyamin numbers 45,600 while Dan numbers 64,400 (Numbers 26:41-43). Yesterday’s numbers are not today’s. Today’s realities are not tomorrow’s. Yeshiva doors are open to new, future leaders. Moses did not become a leader until he was 80. How old are you?

Rabbi Elazar says that Pinchas actually had not been designated a Kohen until he killed Zimri. Yet the “late-blooming” Pinchas ultimately is progenitor of the Kohen Gadol dynasty. He merited greatness because he opted to risk life, not merely to wring hands. By acting, he brought atonement to the entire Jewish people. Sforno explains that God forgave because at least they did not criticize Pinchas after he arose.

He saved the nation even though, as Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch observes, he was but one man, performing but one deed. As Rav Hirsch writes, a true peace advocate fights against the enemies of truth. Cynics, claiming the mantle of “peace-loving,” may condemn him as “Disturber of the Peace — dividing the community.” It is the paradox of history that peace often comes only when — amid hand wringing — the courageous few risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Their risks are great, but they are the people of spirit to whom we owe all. In the end, we tell them, “We were behind you all along.” And it is true.

The Way of Madness


The idea of one Jew killing another is shocking. Most of us think it never happens — but the truth is that it does. It happens this week in the Torah with Pinchas. After seeing a Jew apparently enticed by a Midianite prostitute, Pinchas runs them both through with his spear.

It happened when the Macabbees saw a Jew publicly bowing down to a statue of Zeus in the town of Modin. It happened during the American Civil War, World War I and when the State of Israel was founded. Most recently, as most of us painfully recall, it happened when a young, deranged Orthodox Jew named Yigal Amir assassinated then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Ironically, it was this week’s Torah portion and the character of Pinchas that some of the most extreme Jews used as a justification for the assassination.

After all, doesn’t God reward Pinchas for his zealotry in this week’s parsha? Isn’t Pinchas granted God’s brit shalom (covenant of peace)? Yes, he is. But to my mind, the Torah is telling us not that God rewarded Pinchas, but that God cured him. God tempered Pinchas’ fanaticism so that he would never kill again.

If you ask me, the best response to fanatics who would kill another innocent human being for their cause was the one spoken by Shimon Peres after Rabin’s assassination. He addressed Amir directly and he said to him: “The Jewish people spits you out.”

That’s the Jewish answer to fanaticism.

Any day now, as the pullout from Gaza and some of the West Bank will begin, we all wait and wonder whether or not the main character of this week’s Torah portion will live again. Will the toxic mix of religion and politics bring forth modern day martyrs and assassins?

I know liberals will dislike what I am about to say, but there is a legitimate Jewish claim to the territories. Hebron is as much a part of the land of Israel as Tel Aviv — even more so. There is ample proof of our right to settle the West Bank and Gaza from Torah to modern Zionist theory. Liberals ought to admit that, from the standpoint of Torah, this land is our land.

But conservatives, hawks and the religious extremists ought to recognize something even more important than our biblical right to the land. Privileging land theology above all else is a distortion of Jewish tradition. As my friend Rabbi Ami Hirsch put it, “Since when did this obligation to settle the land come to define the highest calling of being a Jew?”

In the scope of Jewish tradition, settlement is not the highest Jewish value we are commanded to uphold. Life itself is of higher value. The well being of Israeli society is of higher value. Do the lives of a few hundred Israeli children living in Gaza surrounded by hundreds of thousands of resentful Palestinians count for less in the eyes of God than the ancient precept of settling the land? Do the lives of the soldiers defending them, 18-year-old boys, count for nothing compared to settling the land?

Shame on those parents in Gaza for putting their children’s lives in danger for the sake of land. Shame on them for endangering the lives of other peoples’ children — who have been called up to defend them.

Settling all of biblical Israel is not the highest of all Jewish values. Life and peace are the highest of all Jewish values. If we are to be fanatical about anything, let us be fanatical about life and peace. The way of Pinchas is the way of madness. The Jewish people ought to spit it out.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, 1999) and “More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul” (Bonus Books, 2004).

 

Righteous Indignation


Last week’s Torah portion ended with a dramatic cliffhanger. A plague was in progress, punishing the Israelites for worshipping the false gods. Despite earlier prohibitions and the snare of idolatry, an Israelite man openly brought a Midianite woman into the camp. (Commentators infer that the two had sex.) While others wept, Pinchas pierced the couple with a spear, and the plague was suddenly halted. Pinchas risked both his life and the priesthood. The families could have sought revenge, and priests who kill are normally ineligible for service.

This week’s portion delivers the surprising conclusion: "Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath from the Israelites in his zealousness with My jealousy in their midst, so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in My jealousy. Therefore say: ‘Behold, I give him My covenant of peace; it shall be for him and for his descendants after him an everlasting priesthood…’" (Numbers 25:10-13).

The story of Pinchas offers obvious parallels to current political divides. Is Pinchas a religious extremist — the sort who will kill others and himself (without negotiation or due process) for the sake of a cause he knows to be more valuable than human life? Or is Pinchas fighting another kind of extremism — the sort that says nothing is worth dying or killing for, and considers tolerance the ultimate value; the sort that can only stand by and cry in the face of evil?

Pinchas has both admirers and detractors among the commentators. Yet, even those who extol his zealousness distinguish between what Pinchas did and what we should do. According to tradition, Pinchas had a unique gift; he acted without self-interest; his soul and heritage were pure. It would be hubris to attribute to ourselves Pinchas’ capacity for spiritual insight or assign ourselves the right to use his methods. When rabbis enumerate the extraordinary qualities necessary for a zealot, the message is clear: Don’t try this at home.

Some commentators question not only how universal Pinchas’ example is, but how justified it is. The Kotzker Rebbe suggests that Pinchas was intended to succeed Moses as leader. Following this episode, however, Joshua was selected instead. A priest can be zealous for holiness, but the national leader must be kinder and more patient. As Rabbi Elie Munk wrote regarding Pinchas: "It is good to be a strict zealot for oneself, but for the public good one must be imbued with ahavat Yisrael [love for the Jewish people]."

Perhaps Pinchas is given the covenant of peace not so much as a reward, but as a corrective. "Pinchas, in your zealousness, you have undervalued peace. Let peace be the gift and marker of your eternal priesthood."

Years ago, my father, a wonderful and easygoing rabbi, gave a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Uncharacteristically, he shook his fist and raised his voice in disapproval over some vital issue that has, of course, been completely forgotten. The legacy of the story is not in the details of my father’s rightful claim, but in what Morris Mandlebaum said to him about it. Every synagogue, I hope, has a Morris Mandlebaum. Deep and sweet, he retired at age 65 to do mitzvot full time and lived another 30 years. Morris found my dad after services. With great love in his voice, he said: "Rabbi, don’t be angry at the Jews. They’re the only Jews you’ve got."

Our holy prophets preached noble and righteous indignation, but prophecy has ceased. Today, acts of reprisal, pride or self-promotion pose as righteous indignation. Occasionally, an angry or zealous outburst might be an unselfish and sincere response to evil. Mostly, however, outbursts are a form of idolatry. According to the ancient rabbis, rage is self-worship. The implied question behind most indignation is: "How dare they do that in front of/without/to me?"

The debate about Pinchas reminds us — however exceptional he was — of the human tendency to get caught up in our own egos. Therefore, it is a religious duty to be zealous and scrupulous about zealousness and scrupulousness themselves.

This biblical episode does not conclude with the blessings given to Pinchas, but with the names of the offenders: "The name of the Israelite who was killed …. was Zimri, son of Salu, leader of an ancestral house of Simon … the name of the Midianite woman … was Cozbi, daughter of Tzur, tribal head of an ancestral Midianite house" (Numbers 25:14-15). These are not anonymous, faceless sinners. They were human beings, created in the Divine image, with names and parents and tribes. If you have the courage to spear them, have the courage to acknowledge them, too. Because these are the folks you’ve got. Each is precious.

Parshat Balak


Yes, I know that this week is Pinchas, but I must return to the second of last week’s two portions, Balak, for what happens there is too relevant to pass by unmentioned. In this famous portion, King

Balak sends the prophet-magician Balaam to curse Israel, because

he is scared of the people. But, in the end, Balaam ends up blessing

the Israelites as he stands on a cliff overlooking their encampment.

This is what I ask all of you to pray for: that the Palestinians see our tents and realize it is easier to bless than to curse; that the Israelis see the Palestinian dwellings and decide it is easier to include than to exclude. This prayer can only be answered if Palestinians and Israelis can come to

know each other as human beings: mother, father, child — and are no longer scared of each other.

We are all children of the same God. And we are all blessed to be living on this earth.