Parashat Pinchas: Leading to better communication and understanding

Adrian M SchellParashat Balak (last week’s reading) has quite a disturbing end. The short chapter reads like a report that predicts the end of “Project Exodus”. The situation in the camp is chaotic, all boundaries are fallen and no one cares anymore about God and the values taught by Moses. What happened? After the episode with Balaam, we return to what is happening inside camp of the Israelites. There they have sexual relations with Moabite women and offer sacrifices to a Moabite god. As a result, the Eternal punishes the whole camp with a plague. We are close to the end of the 40 years in the desert. More or less no one of the former generation of slaves is still alive; the people are tired of the wandering in the desert. Moses isn’t anymore the dynamic leader he used to be, and the rituals and laws seem to have lost their authority as Moses did. People start turning away from God, and abandoning the laws of the Torah. The desecration of God and God’s name continues. At its peak Zimri, a prince from Israel and Cospi, a daughter of a Moabite chieftain enters a tent – most likely the Mishkan, the holy tent in the middle of the camp – to seal a new covenant between the Israelites and the Moabites, between the Israelites and the God of the Moabites, by having intercourse. Is that the end, end and over? End of the story. God is for sure not amused, not at all, and strikes his people with a plague. Please note that Moses is this time not interfering. To me, the Israelites actually stood at the edge of a deep slope, if not something unexpected happened. Pinchas, a man who hasn’t played a role so far, is taking his lance and kills Zimri and Cospi, he literally and metaphorically stops the union of the two tribes. This ends the plague, and is the end of last week’s Torah portion. What always strikes me are the consequences God is drawing from Pinchas action. Our Torah portion this week starts with the following:

Pinchas … has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, … Therefore …, I give to him my covenant of Shalom, peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood…” (Num 25.11-13)

It seems that someone who kills others in an act of zealously is rewarded by God with a covenant of peace?! A dangerous assumption, especially in regards to the many fundamentalist terror attacks of our time. If we look closer, we see a different facet of God’s „reward” for Pinchas. His reward is not a leadership role, or becoming a war hero. He, and his children, are bound closely to God, serving God as priests, regulated by the rules of the cult. Instead of becoming the spearhead of fighting against others, he becomes the priest for peace, shalom. Instead of zealously watching over God’s claims, he is the one who is now responsibly to find bridges between God and the people, serving them and god by creating communication. The Torah portion teaches us that in rare situations a dramatic action may bring a change – but only if the next step is the creation of a covenant of shalom, leading to better communication and understanding, creating a new ground of trust.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source Fields Torah Commentary and R D Burkeman)

Torah Reading for Shabbat Pinchas

Numbers 25:10-30:1

Reading: Num 26:62-27:23

(Plaut p.1078/Hertz p.691)

Haftarah 1 Kings 18:46-19:21 (P.1095; H.699)

In this week’s Torah portion, God gives Pinchas a covenant of peace. God explains the apportionment of the Land of Israel. The daughters of Zelophehad petition to inherit their father’s portion. Moses appoints Joshua as his successor.

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