FOR THE CAUSE
Rabbi David Walk
'If I didn't have bad luck, I'd have no luck at all.' This quirky quote is attributed to novelist Walter Mosely. I'm not sure when Mr. Mosely said it or exactly what he had in mind. It might have been a reaction to what Edna O'Brien, his mentor at City College, told him, "You're Black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing, there are riches therein.' He did indeed have a difficult youth. The state of California refused to register the marriage of his white, Jewish mother with his black father in 1951; he was born a year later. And he did attribute his prolific writing career to 'an emptiness in my childhood which I filled with fantasies.' This kind of making lemonade when all you have is sour lemons is always inspiring. It calls for a special kind of strength of character to focus and direct difficulties into productive paths. I think that many war heroes have these kinds of stories. This ability to channel a violent nature in ways which benefit society is a win-win situation for the nation. We have, perhaps, a parallel situation in this week's Torah reading.
At the very end of last week's parsha, we have the troubling story of Pinchas, grandson of Aharon the lover of peace, impaling Zimri and Kosbi for public unspeakable acts. That episode ends in a cliff hanger, as we must wait until this week to discover Pinchas' fate. Don't worry, it's the same happy result we read last year. He is blessed by God. I believe that our Sages very carefully edited the parsha beginnings and endings to make very powerful spiritual statements. I think that these sensitive scholars wanted to separate the violent story from his ultimate reward, because they didn't want impressionable readers trying this at home. We'll return to this concept later.
What was the content of God's blessing to Pinchas for this normally outrageous behavior? 'Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his jealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My jealousy. Therefore, say, 'I hereby give him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him as an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was jealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel (Bamidbar 25:11-13).' The word I translated as 'jealousy' is KINAH. We've seen this word before. Just two weeks ago, I spent much of my article ranting against this character defect (within Korach), but now we've transformed it into a sterling trait. Well, maybe and then again, maybe not.
There are certain personality traits which we view as negative. Jealousy is right up there, but perhaps the prime example is anger. As King Solomon said, 'Anger resides in the heart of fools (Kohelet 7:9).' On the other hand, we see prime examples of God getting angry. Even in our story God says that Pinchas' action saved the Jews from the full impact of Divine wrath. The trick is to remain in total control of these emotions. The GIBOR or hero is the one who conquers themselves. Who is the Biblical character associated with this self-conquest? It's Yitzchak. Therefore, it's not surprising that commentators have pointed out that the names Pinchas and Yitzchak have the same numerical value (208).
We have faith that God's creation of heaven and earth was done with purpose and planning. As a result, everything that exists does so for a reason (Except mosquitoes! I hate mosquitoes! Mosquitoes have no purpose!). The purpose may be obscure, but the faithful are confident that the positive will be manifest when necessary. Aristotle weighed in on this issue by declaring, 'Anyone can become angry—that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—but it is not easy.' That's true of anger, when displayed by the spiritually great, like Moshe or Shmuel, and it's equally true of KINAH, as attested to by our text.
We've been translating KINAH as either 'jealous' or 'zealous'. I think the best translation is, perhaps, 'passion'. Dictionary.com defines it as 'any powerful or overwhelming emotion or feeling'. However, archaic meanings had to with suffering or, for my purposes worse, being controlled by one's emotions. We'll ignore those definitions. Our heroes, like Pinchas, have these powerful emotional feelings but remain in control of them, and can channel them to positive purpose. That's rare.
This brings us to the danger of the Pinchas story. It's not every human who can channel and control these overwhelming emotions. Therefore, most of us watch and marvel from the sidelines, rather than engage in these dangerous displays of controlled emotional force. These violent episodes can be debilitating for the perpetrator. We see many veterans who return from foreign wars find re-acclimation to civilian society very difficult. Many of these warriors are confused when the very skills they honed to be successful in combat are denigrated on the streets of their communities.
Now we can understand God's blessing for Pinchas. He wasn't given a Medal of Honor; he was granted the covenant of peace. Even this paragon of passion control needed God's blessing to return to the normality of life. What would he have become without those blessings? I shudder to contemplate him becoming a PTSD sufferer.
From this story we should learn great respect for the spiritual strength of Pinchas. But we should also discover compassion for those veterans who never truly re-assimilate into society. It's a disturbing story with powerful lessons for our world. The Sages didn't believe that we could deal with the story in one sitting, and, therefore split it over two weeks. It's an amazing story, but one which should be labeled: Handle With Care.