Torah portion: Reframing the Brit Shalom

Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
July 9, 2014

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. 

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