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How to read the story of Pinchas, a shatteringly brutal tale of love and violence? That is the question in this week’s Torah portion, especially for the modern Jew?

The story begins this way:

“Now YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned my venomous-anger from the Children of Israel in his being zealous with My jealousy in their midst, so that I did not finish off the children of Israel in my jealousy.” (Numbers 25:10-11)

What did Pinchas do to attract God’s attention? Without due process he took his sword and in one thrust plunged it into the back of the Israelite man Zimri and through the belly of the Midianite woman Cozbi who were locked in an amorous embrace, and Pinchas killed them dead.

The Torah tells us that God credited Pinchas with having saved thousands who God was about to kill Himself, but Pinchas’ righteous rage kept God’s violence at bay. Then God rewarded Pinchas with “briti shalom – My covenant of peace.”

If this were the entire story many of us would despair its implications. Indeed, Jewish extremist rabbis in Israel have used this story in recent years to justify attacking Reform rabbis in the manner Pinchas attacked Zimri.

Thankfully, the midrashic and esoteric traditions explore deeper truths hidden in this grim tale that offer meaning rather than despair.

Most rabbinic commentary justifies Pinchas’ deed as virtuous. There is, nevertheless, a mystical strain that regards Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love not as a great sin at all, but as a union so pure and beautiful that the world could not contain it.

For this understanding I’m grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man and Rabbi Yosi Gordon. They have brought forward the reflections of some of our greatest mystic sages, Rabbis Isaac Luria, Chaim vital, Abraham Azulai, and the Izbeca Rabbi (“Learn Torah With…” – July 22, 1995) who wrote:

“There are ten degrees of fornication in the world. At the lowest level, the worst, the will to sin is even greater than the desire to perform the act, and the person has to urge himself on to sally out into the world and sully it. At each ascending level, however, the protagonist’s will becomes progressively more powerful. At the tenth and final level, which is extremely rare, the desire is so powerful that no human will in the world would be strong enough to vanquish it. We must conclude that it was not a sin at all, but God’s will. Zimri and Cozbi, far from being wicked sinners, were a couple ordained from the beginning of creation.”

In other words, Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love was so high and exalted that it could neither be realized nor sustained in the real world, reminding us of the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet and the maiden and her beloved in The Song of Songs 8:6-7:

Ki azah cha-mavet ahavah,kasha chishol kin’ah.      

“For love is fierce as death, / passion is mighty as Sheol;

R’shafeha rispei esh / Shalhevetya.

Its darts are darts of fire, / A blazing flame.

Mayim rabim lo yuchlu l’chabot et ahavah / Un’harot lo yish’t’puha.

Vast floods cannot quench love, / Nor rivers drown it.”

The Kabbalah teaches that though Zimri’s and Cozbi’s soul-love defied the tragedy of their real life together, they came back into the reincarnated life of Rabbi Akiva who built his famed academy.

In light of this, how might we regard Pinchas?

To the modern eye his reward of the “covenant of peace” seems unjust and wrong. Most traditional commentators, however, emphasize Pinchas’ motive as pure, l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. The Kabbalists said that though Pinchas sincerely sought Truth, he did not grasp nor understand Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love.

There are two slight variations in the text that give support to this view. The first is in the writing of Pinchas’ name – Peh-yod-nun-chet-samech (Numbers 25:11).  The yod is written unusually small suggesting that God’s holiest Name – Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh (which at times is designated by a lone yod), and Jews (Yehudim) – Yod-heh-vav-daled-yod-mem) that begins with yod, are diminished when a Jew engages in violence, even justified violence.

The second variation comes in the vav of the word shalom – shin-lamed-vav-mem – meaning “wholeness.” The vav here is strangely broken in the middle suggesting that the wholeness of this covenant – briti shalom – (indeed, any agreement that’s reached by destroying one’s opponent) will inevitably be a flawed and incomplete peace.

Is it not true? Real peace cannot come from violence and war.

Lest we despair, Rabbi Omer-man reminds us of Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love, of its exalted purity despite transgressing tribal taboo, and that even in situations as dire as this one “there is light [even] when we [believe we] can only see darkness.”

Shabbat shalom.