We find activism to be a subject of much debate in all circles. Its the rabble rousers acting up again, the extreme folk who make us all look bad. Its those radicals who are unstoppable in their quest for publicity, irrational in their mob mentality. They stir up trouble and tie up our police forces and other resources in quelling their demonstrations. We seem to be always cleaning up the mess they make and fixing the damage from their ‘freedom of expression.’ Or, its our heros taking to the streets again, taking a stand against government catering to the wealthy, funding projects through hikes in bus fares. They are going to get the politicians to dismount from their high horses and listen to the people. They will fight for equality, stand up against corruption and ‘take our country back!’
Is activism positive or negative, helpful or harmful? The answer is yes. Activists are fanatics, lunatics, heros, martyrs, champions of human rights, perpetrators of treachery – it all depends on the circumstances and the cause they are fighting for, and, most important, whether or not I agree with their position. An activists steps into the arena and takes the flak for others who are afraid (or more pragmatic) to stand up against some wrong, whatever that may be. Inequality, government violation of citizen’s right to privacy, occupation of Palestinian territory by the Zionist regime, the religious coercion of the State, the lack of State adherence to the religious authority etc…
Excitement was high. The cult of idolatry introduced by the seductive women of Moav and Midian had taken hold of a great number of people. Pagan revelry dominated the camp while a stormy debate was taking place by the judges, the loyalists, who were ringing their hands in despair, openly weeping at the state of affairs in the camp. Shrieks of agony erupted all around from people taken by the plague, which was taking a devastating toll on the nation. In the middle of this, Pinchas stood up in jealous passion for the honor of G-d. Everyone else was either engaged in idolatry, lured by the honey traps of Midian or else too paralyzed by shock to take any action. He did something radical, taking his spear, fearlessly storming into the heart of the rebellion and killing two very important people, the judge of the tribe of Shimon and his companion, a princess of Midian. Pinchas’ act brought everything to a halt. The plague, which already claimed the lives of 24,000 people was stopped in its tracks. The cult broke up just as quickly and everybody was shaken back into their senses. Pinchas wiped the perspiration off his brow, lowered his head and quietly retired to his tent. The people, suddenly ashamed of what had happened, what they had allowed to happen, also dispersed quietly, leaving the Moabites to clean up their mess.
Our Parsha begins in the aftermath of this activity. The Lord spoke to Moses, telling him that Pinchas had appeased the wrath of G-d by avenging G-d’s honor and thereby prevented the destruction of the people. “Therefore say to him,” instructed G-d, “I give to him My covenant of peace…”
Pinchas had taken the law into his own hands. Nay, he took a spear into his own hands, ignoring the law and not allowing for due process. He didn’t read the prince of Shimon his Miranda rights and had not allowed him to stand before a jury where he would have had an opportunity to speak in his defense. Pinchas didn’t warn his victim, as Torah law requires, that he was in violation of Torah law and that he would be culpable for his actions by the appropriate consequence. Pinchas should have allowed the Midianite princess to be extradited to her country and sit in trial in Midian. Pinchas is a murderer! Pinchas let his passionate rage get the better of him. He lost control of himself in his jealousy of the glory of G-d, and for this he is rewarded? Why is he different from any common terrorist or murderer who takes the lives of others because they ‘offended his ideals?’ And most difficult of all, not only is he commended for his actions, the reward he is given, G-d’s covenant of peace, is counterintuitive, when his actions were anything but peaceful.
The commentaries explain why Pinchas was within his lawful rights when he speared the two. But that is not our subject. We want to understand why Pinchas was raised to stardom as a result of his actions. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes that the covenant of peace was in fact a reflection of Pinchas’ accomplishment through his actions. Shalom, peace, when mentioned in the Torah is not merely an absence of strife, it is rather a perfect harmony, a wholeness. Peace is active, a positive relationship between two entities. We strive for peace between men; we work toward a world where nations coexist in harmonious pursuits of symbiotic benefit. But peace between men, writes Rabbi Hirsch, can only be established when there is peace between man and G-d. The events in Shittim tore a great rift in the relationship between G-d and Israel, destroying the harmony of a common goal and partnership. Everything that had been built since the revelation at Mt. Sinai was now in danger. The achievements of 40 years and the lifespan of a world was pouring out through the great breach in Shittim. In his act of jealousy for G-d’s honor Pinchas mended the breach instantly. He set the ship back on course, restoring the relationship of harmony between G-d and Israel. Therefore, said the Lord, I am giving him My covenant of peace, so that he will continue to establish peace between people just has he had restored peace between man and G-d.
And this restoration of peace Pinchas accomplished through an act of violence. There was no other way. The system had to be shocked in order to reverse the direction. There was no ‘peaceful’ way to do this. This was dramatic activism, but Pinchas was not fighting for his own ego, and he did not harbor any personal enmity to the Shimonite prince. His actions were entirely for the sake of G-d’s honor.
Peace, writes Rabbi Hirsch, is a precious thing, worth sacrificing all one has for it – all one’s rights and possessions, although never the rights of another, and never that which G-d deemed right and good. In this instance circumstances called for dramatic action. Those lovers of peace who stood by, inactive, ostensibly because they preferred ‘peaceful’ resolution, were helpless to change anything or set right that which was wrong. It was Pinchas, the ‘disturber’ of peace, who succeeded in actually bringing peace back to the nation.
The Torah is teaching us that he who, for the sake of peace, leaves the battlefield open to others who are at variance with that which is right and good, is in fact fighting on the side of those who are evil. Those who refused to engage in the idolatrous cult of Midian did not accomplish anything by their abstention. Those who cried tears at the entrance of the sanctuary also scored no points in the ultimate resolution. It was Pinchas, with his action of bravery and pure honesty, which resulted in the restoration of peace on earth.
Despite Pinchas’ sterling intent, however, since it was accomplished through violence it was not entirely kosher. The letter “vav” in the word shalom is cracked in every Torah scroll. G-d awarded Pinchas His covenant of peace, but not in its entirety. “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace,” writes the Psalmist about the Torah. Sometimes there is no other way, but it is a painful resort to use violence.
May the Lord grant us the courage and resolve to stand up when necessary, the restraint and complacency to resist a violent reaction when unnecessary, and the wisdom to know the difference.
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