Was Menachem Begin a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Were the American Sons of Liberty, who burned British coaches and tarred and feathered loyalists, terrorists or freedom fighters? Was the Biblical priest Pinchas a murdering hothead or a zealous defender of God? One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor or, as my father used to say, “It depends on whose ox is being gored.”
The story of Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, is a difficult one to my mind, because it blurs the lines between activism and terrorism, a dilemma we face today on many fronts. It all started when the Israelites were camped near the Moabite tribe. Throughout the Bible, there are numerous admonitions to stay away from those Moabites; a people, we are told, with loose morals, and gods who liked it that way. Yet, given the proximity of the two encampments, there were incidents of, shall we say, cavorting. Ok, the text calls it “liznot”, whoring, with the Moabite women. The Israelites “attached themselves” to this group and God got upset. So God told Moses to round up the “pro-Moabite” Israelite ringleaders and publicly impale them in front of the rest of the people. Ouch. Then, right after that, one of the Israelites (Zimri) brought his non-Israelite girlfriend, Cozbi, over to his house, stopping first at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, where everyone was crying over the impaled ones, before carrying on to his tent to begin their cavorting. That got Pinchas upset, so he took up his spear, left the group, and followed the couple to the Israelite’s tent, and skewered them. Again, ouch.
Moses then hears from God as to the consequences of Pinchas’ double murder: God rewarded him with the High Priesthood for himself and his descendants, and reiterated that Pinchas was given God’s covenant of peace. Thisis the consequence of murdering two people in broad daylight, in front of everyone? Job security for the most revered position in the community?
Many rabbis are disturbed by the apparent reward for Pinchas’ actions. Certainly, I am. Some say that it wasn’t such a great reward; by becoming High Priest, Pinchas would forever be constrained by the rules of the priesthood—his zealousness would be curtailed, and he would have to restrain himself for the rest of his life within the confines of his position. In one sense, when we sentence murderers to life in prison, we also confine them (literally) and make them live with their passions unfulfilled.
In the furthering of one’s religious faith, are there no limits? Or rather, is it ok that we justify our crossing a line because “they” have crossed that same line? Perhaps how we view Pinchas’ acts depends on whether we’re Israelite or Moabite. How blurry is the line between terrorist and freedom fighter, dangerous anarchist and necessary activist for justice. We talk a lot about not sitting down with terrorists to work out disputes, that by doing so , we give honor to their actions. However, at a certain point, any leader who has been zealous for a cause has done questionable things, either overtly like Pinchas, or covertly, like secret missions, to advance that cause. There’s blood on everyone’s hands around the table.
Right before Pinchas goes on his spree, the Torah mentions a plague that was killing thousands of people. We don’t know what that plague was from, but after Moses arranges for the public execution of the ringleaders, and Pinchas’ more impromptu killing of Zimri and Cozbi, the plague was stopped. Why would killing stop the killing?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow sees it this way: the plague came from God. Pinchas, seeing how God was taking retribution on God’s own people, chose to imitate God. He took up his own arms to attack what he saw was the embodiment of offense against God, mixing with the Moabites. At that point, God saw what God’s own actions had become – violence begetting violence, and so the plague was halted. Rabbi Waskow puts it this way: “His [Pinchas’] jealous/ zealous act opened My eyes, shocked Me into shame at what I Myself was doing. That is why I stopped the plague; that is why I made with Pinchas My covenant of shalom/ peace.” (R. Arthur Waskow, theshalomcenter.org)
It’s an astonishing concept, that perhaps even God has to rethink the actions put in place, in light of the human reaction to them. Maybe even God’s actions don’t turn out as envisioned. How much more so do we have to think clearly about the plans we put into action and the leaders we choose to carry the out? We can view the story of Pinchas as a cautionary tale. Our zealousness can’t get in the way of our humanity. Our devotion to a cause can’t justify doing things just because “they” are doing them. That’s not how we stop the plague.
Anita Silvert is a freelance teacher and writer, living in Northbrook. You can read more of her weekly Torah musings on her blog, Jewish Gems, www.anitasilvert.wordpress.com.