June 18, 2019

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.