Number 25:11. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned my anger away from the people of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in my jealousy.
There are many troubling aspects to the story of Pinchas, which began in last week’s Torah portion, and continues in this week’s.
The men of Israel started cavorting with Midianite women, who led them astray not only into sexual immorality, but into idol worship. One of the leaders of the Jewish people, Zimri ben Salu, a leader of one of the houses of Shimon, went so far as to have relations with a Midianite woman named Kozbi, right in front of God and everyone, so to speak. The Torah relates that Zimri and Kozbi were doing their thing “before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of the entire congregation of Israel, who were weeping at the tent of meeting.” Pinchas, the son of Elazar was zealous for God, took a spear in his hand and ran the two of them through, stopping a plague that had already killed 24,000 of B’nei Yisrael.
As I said, there are many troubling aspects to this story. Today I want to focus on just a few. It appears from the story that all of Israel was being punished because of the sin of Zimri—a plague was raging which stopped when Pinchas killed him. Why should it be that everyone was being punished for the sins of one person? Isn’t “collective punishment” against the principles of the Torah? Isn’t everyone supposed to be punished just for their own sins? The other question I want to explore is why is that Pinchas’ action of running two sinners through with a spear was sufficient to stop this terrible plague. The Torah describes the stopping of the plague as an immediate effect of Pinchas’ actions.
We have a hint to the resolution of the question of why was everyone being punished in the description of the crowd who was watching. The Torah says that Zimri and Kozbi were engaged in their repulsive behavior “before the eyes of the entire congregation of Israel, who were weeping at the tent of meeting.”
Why were they weeping? It would seem the congregation was weeping because they recognized that Zimri was engaged in a great sin. But what did they do about it? Nothing. They stood around the Ohel Moed, the tent of meeting and cried about. What’s the message? It’s not enough to stand around and cry when we see something wrong being done.
Sadly, today it seems we don’t even do that much. And I definitely include myself in that “we.” Where is our passion for righting the wrongs around us? There are a huge number of problems in the world around us. Anti-Semitism. War in the Middle East. Israel under attack. Poverty—which, by the way is a local problem effecting us too—15% of the Jews in the lower Mainland live in poverty. Homelessness, hunger, runaway children, orphaned children without adequate support in many countries, hatred, bigotry. That long list is just a start. But what do we do? We see wrongs in the world around us, and we’re not even standing around the tent of meeting crying. We’re going about our business, living our lives, worrying about our personal concerns—jobs, bills, schools, etc., are all enough to keep our attention, we don’t seem to have the energy left over for other issues. Or maybe there are so many other issues out there we get overwhelmed, so we ignore the lot of them.
The need for passion is alluded to in the way the plague that killed 24,000 of B’nei Yisrael was stopped. It was stopped by Pinchas taking a spear and running the transgressors through. The Slonimer Rebbe brings a teaching that the passion in the corrective action needs to correspond to the passion in the transgression. It’s just like the way that we kasher dishes. For example, if you have a dairy cutting board, which is only used to cut cold things, and you accidentally put a piece of meat on it, all you have to do make the cutting board kosher again is rinse it with cold water. For things whose use is cold, cold is enough to fix it. On the other hand, if you drop a piece of meat into a dairy pot on the stove, to render the pot kosher you have to boil water in it. If it is used for hot, it takes hot to fix it.
A lukewarm response is suitable to lukewarm issues and problems. But the truth is, we face serious issues in the world around us. The problems in the Middle East are not going to be resolved with lukewarm responses: they call for a high degree of passion in the solution, because the problem comes from a place of passion.
It’s often difficult for a political moderate to seem passionate. It’s always extremists who are passionate. The Palestinians who want to destroy the State of Israel are passionate. The Israelis who want to throw the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza and send them to Jordan or Egypt or God knows where are passionate. The truth is, those of us who are more moderate, who would like to see an Israeli state living in peace side by side with a Palestinian state need to be just as passionate as the fanatics. We need to believe in our cause, and be as articulate and vocal about our beliefs, as those who are radical in their approach to a solution.
The old joke goes “our biggest problem is apathy, but who cares?” It’s true. If we want to change the world around us—whether it’s as local as reinvigorating our congregation or as global as world peace—we need to bring passion to our cause. The example of Pinchas shows both the power of passion, and the fact that one individual can make the difference—just as we can see from more contemporary examples, like Mahatma Gandhi or Theodore Herzl.
Maybe we can’t each rise to the level of accomplishment of a Gandhi or Herzl. But the plague that struck B’nei Yisrael teaches us that we certainly need to do more than stand around the tent of meeting and cry.