Drash on Parashat Pinchas 2019
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Zealousness and Peace
I began writing this Torah commentary by trying to find a delicate way to describe the ending of last week’s Torah portion. I quickly concluded that it was impossible. The episode involving Pinchas, Zimri the Israelite and Cozbi the Midianite is so lurid that its appearance in a movie would instantly earn an adult rating. Simply put, Pinchas commits an act of terrible violence. At the start of this week’s Torah portion, God congratulates him and promises that the priesthood will remain in his family forever as a reward for his faithfulness. I can think of no other part of the Torah where the modern day reader experiences such a level of cognitive dissonance. God sees Pinchas’ actions as heroic, but it is nearly impossible for us to respond with anything but horror.
God specifically praises Pinchas for his display of kin’ah. Kin’ah is often translated as “jealousy,” but can also be understood as “passion.” Here, it is probably best translated as “zeal.” Pinchas is zealous for God, and God shows appreciation for Pinchas’s zealousness. The haftarah reading for the week depicts another figure from the Tanakh well know for his zealousness: Elijah, who expresses his zeal by fighting a lonely battle for God while Ahab King of Israel promotes faith in the Canaanite god Baal instead.
Even in the Tanakh, there are few figures who are associated with zeal. Most of the time, it is God who displays kin’ah—not human beings. Moses is never seen as being zealous, nor any of the patriarchs or the prophets who come later. Abraham is described as blameless, Moses as humble. In the Torah, only Pinchas is zealous.
So we may perhaps conclude that even at the time of the Tanakh, people were wary of such a ferocious emotion. We now appreciate that zeal can cause people to lose control over their emotions and subsequently over their actions. God may conclude that Pinchas’ violent outburst was appropriate, but there is a chance that even Pinchas himself may have been terrified by his impulsiveness. He vanishes from the Torah at this point, perhaps shrinking back into a more modest life.
God rewards Pinchas with a promise the priesthood will remain with him always, but there is an additional offering. In Numbers 25:12, God offers him בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם—my covenant of peace. It may initially seem odd that God’s response to such violent actions would be a covenant of peace. But perhaps it’s actually entirely appropriate: God acknowledges Pinchas’ faithfulness in intervening in such a zealous way. But by rewarding him with peace, God reminds him that this is the ideal way to work through disputes.
In our age, we are appropriately wary of those who would act impulsively from a place of emotions rather than pausing and acting rationally instead. The end suggestion of God’s response to Pinchas is that we would all do well to act from a place of peacefulness, even in the midst of strong emotion.