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Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up,
by their ancestral houses, all Israelites able to bear arms.” (Numbers 26:2)

Parashat Pinchas is a real law-and-order parasha, or portion. Pinchas, so to Elazar the High Priest (remember, Aaron, his grandfather is dead), is incensed when he sees an Israelite man cavorting with a Midianite woman in front of ohel moed, the Tent of Meeting. Filled with pious rage, he spears them both to death (Num. 25:7-8). God rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and eternal priesthood (Num. 25:13, 14). According to a strict reading of halacha, or Jewish law, Pinchas is guilty of murder. So why is he rewarded?

Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (~ early 1400s; French commentator) points out we learn of Pinchas’ behavior last week in Parashat Balak, while we learn of God’s response only this week. He claims God needs the time to determine whether Pinchas acts out of self-interest (i.e., to show off how righteous he is). Pinchas’ subsequent behavior convinces God his motives are pure and he is worthy of the k’huna, or priesthood. Still, it is troubling to think God condones vigilante justice.

There is no end of people who claim to act on God’s behalf (regardless of which divine name is used). But a just society establishes and maintains public procedures for establishing innocence or guilt and sanctions the use of violence as punishment sparingly, if at all. A just society also ensures equal access to the judicial process; Pirkei Avot is filled with admonitions to keep the scales balanced. So Pinchas’s behavior raises a question: is Pinchas a zealous defender of the faith against avodah zara, idolatry, or is Pinchas’ zealotry itself avodah zara?

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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