What’s the appropriate punishment for someone who engages in “vigilante justice,” taking matters into his own hand when he sees something wrong being done?
The wrong may have been public and clear, but we still don’t allow people to act as judge, jury, and executioner. There are procedures to be followed.
All of which makes Pinhas’ reward for being a vigilante puzzling.
At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the men of Israel were having licentious sex with Midianite women, who were pulling them not only into sexual immorality but into idol worship. Zimri ben Salu, a leader of his tribe was publicly having relations with a Midianite woman named Kozbi, in the sight of not just God, but of everyone there. The Torah says they 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.”
Aaron’s grandson Pinhas, who the Torah tells us was “zealous for God,” took a spear in his hand and drove it right through the both of them. A plague that already killed 24,000 people stopped when Pinhas put an end to this public desecration.
In the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Pinhas, God tells Moses,
Pinhas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃
Therefore I say, ‘I grant him My covenant of peace.’
We turn to the Torah for guidance on how to conduct ourselves, but if you see someone engaged in an act of public immorality, don’t go looking for a spear to run through them. I’m sure the police would arrest you, and the courts would convict you.
The rabbinic commentators have long been troubled by God seeming to condone Pinhas’ bold action.
He miraculously struck exactly at Zimri’s male and her female parts so that everyone could plainly perceive that he had not killed them without just cause.
The rabbis also asked what law, what halacha, could have justified killing the woman? She was not Jewish. While it may have been a capital offense for Zimri to engage in public idol worship, it’s not a capital offense for a non-Jewish woman to do so, or to seduce a Jewish man, even if he were married. There doesn’t seem to be a crime that she could be put to death for, yet Pinhas is still rewarded.
In an explanation that is highly offensive to modern sensibilities, Or Hachaim (18th c. Morocco), says,
Perhaps Pinchas applied the law applicable to animals to Kozbi. We have learned in Leviticus 20:15 that when humans and animals indulge in mutual sex even the animal has to be executed. We are also told in Ezekiel 23:20 that the flesh of Gentiles is equated with the flesh of donkeys.
I don’t think they would have bought that explanation even back in the days of Pinhas.
The Talmud Yerushalmi says that the elders wanted to excommunicate Pinhas for his vigilante justice, and they would have done so if not for the voice of God announcing that Pinhas was receiving a covenant of peace.
The previous Slonimer Rebbe, Sholom Noach Berezovsky, a 20th century Israeli rabbi, explains it by saying the extreme passion exhibited by Kozbi and Zimri needed to be countered with equally extreme passion. The passion in the corrective action needs to correspond to the passion in the transgression.
He explains it’s similar to how we kasher dishes. If you cut a piece of cold meat on a dairy cutting board that is only used for cold things all you have to do to make the cutting board kosher again is rinse it with cold water. Cold fixes cold. On the other hand, dropping a piece of meat into a dairy soup cooking on the stove will need boiling water to correct. Hot fixes hot.
This is a relevant message for us today because we live in a world that seems to be increasingly driven by passionate people at the extremes.
I thought Canada was somewhat isolated from the extreme political passions that have been rocking America for the last several years, so I was surprised back in February when I read about the truckers’ protests in Ottawa that shut down the center of Canada’s capital for weeks. Apparently, hockey is not the only thing that can arouse great passion in Canadians.
The problem is the people with all the passion are typically at the extremes. I hope you’ll pardon my using American examples, but I’m not as familiar with Canadian public figures yet. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both show much more passion than the moderates, both representing extreme wings in their parties. Greta Thunberg shows an amazing amount of passion for her cause, pushing for climate change, but insisting on taking a sailboat to get to New York for a meeting at the UN is an extreme most of us will not go to, and I like to sail.
I believe the fact that passion seems to be found only at the extremes is a major problem for the world today. It stands in the way of bringing to fruition what are likely the best solutions to the challenges we face.
The solution to climate change is not convincing everyone to travel by sailboat instead of commercial airliner. The solution to managing COVID is not to make believe COVID is no longer a problem at all, as many of the most vocal and passionate protesters would claim. The real and best answers are likely to be found in the middle, but where are the people charged with passion for the middle of the road solutions?
It’s easy to be passionate for extreme solutions, where you just shut out any evidence that’s contrary to your opinion. The challenge for those of us closer to the middle is that we see the shades of gray, not just the black and white. But acknowledging that there is no single best answer doesn’t have to make us wimpy about seeking a best answer, even if it’s only one best answer among many answers that could make things better.
It’s possible to have passion without extremism. One of the things I love about visiting Jewish summer camps in the incredible passion our kids can show for doing Jewish stuff when they are in the right environment. A few years ago I visited Ramah Darom, Camp Ramah in Georgia where one of my daughters is now a lifeguard, and the kids had the dining hall rocking with the enthusiasm they showed for birkat hamazon.
The problems the world faces are extreme. We need people with the passion of Pinhas or Greta Thunberg to set them right. Steve Jobs said, “You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.”
I understand that the middle of a heat wave might not be the best time to encourage more passion. As Ella Fitzgerald sang, “it’s too darn hot.”
But notwithstanding the hot weather, those of us who are moderate in our views need to bring the same amount of passion and energy to fighting for and arguing for what we believe in as those who are at the extremes.
It may sound like an oxymoron, but what the world needs is more “passionate moderates.”