Numbers 25:10-26:4, 16th July 2022 – Franz Fuerst

What is the problem with sermons? They are only words. No matter how powerful or passionate the message contained in them may be, the raw materials – the words – from which they are crafted, are always fragile and ephemeral. And words are comfortably bendable and flexible as we all know. In fact, the terms ‘preaching’ and ‘sermon’ have taken on an almost entirely pejorative meaning in contemporary use. It is far easier to talk about mitzvot and the path of the righteous than to actually perform these good deeds consistently.

Our everyday language is full of sayings such as ‘talk is cheap’ and ‘actions speak louder than words’. After all, a sermon offers only words, even in realms where deeds seem more important. Not so with the protagonist of today’s parsha, Pinchas. When Moses and the other leaders of Israel seem indecisive and hesitant in a situation of great physical and spiritual danger, Pinchas stands up and takes drastic action, thereby stopping a deadly plague amongst the Israelites in its tracks. He is a zealot and earns praise from God and a covenant of eternal peace.

“Pinchas, 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”.

Can wrath ever be a good thing?
It is puzzling, however, why Pinchas would be praised and rewarded with a covenant of eternal peace for his crass and violent actions when God punished Moses (Numbers 20:11) so severely for striking a rock in an outburst of anger instead of speaking to it. It seems clear that both men’s intentions were good, Pinchas standing up for his beliefs and Moses trying to provide drinking water to his people. However, the crucial difference is that Moses’ anger was driven by disobedience and a lack of belief in God whereas for Pinchas the motivation was purely to uphold the law. This may be why Moses was told that he would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel for what he had done, while Pinchas was praised and rewarded.

A lack of perspective?
And yet, the fundamental problem remains unresolved. Just because some of the Israelites engaged in love affairs with women of another tribe does not seem to justify an execution-style killing. As a modern reader I wonder if there is some hidden misogyny at play here when the Midianite and Moabite women are called ‘harlots’ trying to seduce the benei Yisrael. Isn’t the most likely scenario that they had no choice, and were coerced by the political leaders of their tribes to perform these acts? Cozbi, the Midianite woman paid with her life while the Midianite King and others who most likely sent her and other Midianite women on this mission got off scot-free. Some commentators even suspect that Zimri and Cozbi were a married couple given the high social status they occupied in their respective tribes. This would then make Pinchas’ deed more a statement against ‘racial’ intermarriage rather than amoral sexual behaviour. To make matters even more confusing, Moses was himself married to a Midianite but did not get punished. On the contrary, his sister Miriam was punished for criticising his marrying a woman from another tribe. As is frequently the case, one can find seemingly contradicting narratives in the Torah.

The Rabbinic take on zealotry
Whatever the particular circumstances were, the rabbinic literature is quite ambivalent and uneasy about this episode of a zealot taking drastic action. Perhaps this also hints at a larger power struggle throughout Jewish history between the representatives of the priesthood (Levites) and the judicial/rabbinic branch of Judaism. The rabbis were always more comfortable with the written word of the Torah and the halacha than the Levites and warriors were. Fast forward about 1200 years to the story of Chanukah and the Maccabees provide another example that bears striking similarity to Pinchas’ actions. There, it is Mattathias who after killing a man in rage who offered a pagan sacrifice on the altar, runs through the streets crying out: “Everyone who is faithful to God’s covenant and obeys his Law, follow me! (1 Maccabees 2, 28). And although God does not appear directly in the story of the Maccabees, it is made clear, not least in our Chanukah songs, that victory over the occupiers was not achieved by military might but by divine intervention and the miracle of the Temple. Once again, the rabbis managed to tame and rein in the destructive force of an act of extra-judicial violence and shape our interpretation of these historical facts.

Standing up for what is right
At this point, we should perhaps pause and check if we are about to lose the main message from parsha Pinchas if we probe too deeply into the moral circumstances and motives of that time while wearing our contemporary progressive hats. As justified as these questions may be, we should perhaps ask a more abstract question: ‘how far are we willing to go to stand up for what we consider right and just?’ This immediately takes us back into our own lives and to present day politics. It is not least the main conundrum the West is facing in dealing with the current crisis in Ukraine. Should we stand up for the values of democracy and freedom even if it jeopardises world peace and risks nuclear confrontation? It is also a question that the State of Israel has faced many times since its inception when dealing with terrorism and extremism. Pinchas’ answer seems clear cut: you should always defend your beliefs even though – or especially when- others are hesitating and prevaricating.

So we should stand up for what’s right. It sound so simple. The trouble is of course that others have their own conception of what is right and what is wrong and it might clash pretty violently with yours. The Midianites believed in their own god and it seems logical that they wanted to promote their religion with the same conviction as the Israelites. You might consider it a competition of ideas and ideologies, rather than a battle between good and evil. Similar to the common adage “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” you could say “one person’s idol worshipper is another person’s devout follower of the true religion”. However, we soon realise that taking this relativist ‘it’s all in the eye of the beholder’ stance will only lead us down a blind alley. Followed to its logical conclusion, we would need to jettison all our moral and ethical beliefs and legitimise anything and everything, including some of the most horrible deeds that we as progressive Jews fight against.

The rational choice
Is there a way out of this conundrum? Where do we draw the line? Perhaps we can gain some insights from game theory, in the famous ‘prisoner’s dilemma’. Its basic set up works as follows: Two criminals, let’s call them Bonnie and Clyde, are caught by the police, put in prison and interrogated separately with no means of communicating with each other or guessing each other’s strategic behaviour. The police only have enough evidence to convict them of a minor offense but not of the more serious charge so the police confront Bonnie and Clyde following three options:

  • If both betray each other, they will each serve 3 years in prison.
  • If Bonnie betrays Clyde whilst Clyde remains loyal, she will be set free whereas Clyde’s loyalty gets him a whopping 10 years in prison. The same applies vice versa.
  • If both remain loyal, they will each be sentenced to a short 1-year sentence.

It seems that mutual loyalty is the best choice in terms of minimising the overall punishment inflicted on the hapless couple. But wait, how can you trust your partner to do their bit? In a situation where you cannot guess the other person’s action, the choice becomes pretty clear: it is always better to accuse your opponent as this will spare you from the most severe punishment, 10 years in prison. Hence, cooperation and peaceful behaviour are not always the best and most rational strategy. The prisoners’ dilemma, which we encounter in so many guises in our daily lives as well as on the big stage of world politics, seems to push us towards choosing a strategy that is non-optimal. And unfortunately this rational strategy can lead to war and a great deal of human suffering.

So what can we learn from all this for our daily dealings with zealots, extremists or just rude, aggressive and unreasonable people? Are we really always better off to confront them head on? Robert Yisrael Aumann, the Israeli Nobel Prize winner in economics sheds some light on this in a 2018 interview with the Fathom Journal using an easy to understand example[1]:

“Imagine that two people are given £10,000 to divide between them, but only if they both agree. The first person, the ‘rational one’ says let’s divide equally while the other demands £9,000 or threatens to walk out (and they’ll both receive zero). The first will most likely knuckle under, as he’d rather have £1,000 than nothing. So it turns out the seemingly ‘irrational’ one comes out on top.

The response of the first one should be ‘I want £5,000 or I’m walking out. Now you decide’. Game theory understands this as a battle of the wills, and it is essential that each player convince the other that he is serious, that he’s willing to walk out unless his demands are met. Yet, in order to convince the other side that you are serious, you have to first internalise it and believe it yourself – otherwise convincing the other person will be impossible. It’s not a theatre; you can’t do make-believe. For the first person to be successful in the story, he has to deeply believe that he is not walking out of that room with less than £5,000. If he’s going to be ‘rational’ about it then he’ll lose out.”

So what Aumann tells us here is that the person who is unsure of their own beliefs and chances of success will ultimately lose out when confronted with a more extreme opponent. Applied to today’s parsha, game theory suggests that Pinchas acted entirely rationally by acting seemingly irrationally. His actions were successful in that they brought all the Israelites back in line by upping the ante and setting a drastic example. However, it is important to recognise that this does not mean that extreme action will always win the day. Pinchas did not go around stabbing everyone he deemed to transgress the Law. Only a single occurrence of his violence is reported in the Torah, and the rabbinic commentaries emphasise the exceptional nature of the situation that justified this extra-judicial killing[2]. Several conditions were stipulated after the fact. It had to be done in the spur of the moment and for a specific purpose to legitimise it, otherwise it would have been considered murder.

If you lose, don’t lose the lesson!
There are many lessons to be learned from the controversial and multi-layered parashat Pinchas. Perhaps the most obvious one is that any zealous and drastic behaviour, if it ever becomes necessary, needs to be moderated and tempered lest it becomes a destructive force devouring both the perpetrator and the victim in a spiral of never-ending violence. Some go even further and note that the case of Pinchas is indicative of a larger trajectory of progress throughout the history of Judaism that takes us from atavism and tribalism to moral refinement and a concern for all humankind. [3].

It is perhaps not a surprise that in the end the more moderate Joshua is chosen as Moses’ successor, not Pinchas[4]. Zealotry and mental rigidity will not prevail in the long run and history offers plenty of examples for this. We need to remain open-minded and flexible in our outlook on the world. Perhaps this is what Ernest Hemingway[5] had in mind when he wrote: “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills.” In the long run, aligning our words and deeds whilst remaining capable of compromising, cooperating and accepting other people’s views will prevail…or at least that is my hope!

Shabbat shalom!

[1] Fathom Journal: Israel70 | Yisrael Aumann on gaming Israel’s future. March 2018.

[2] Rav Michael Hattin: Pinchas: A Zealot’s Rage. 2014

[3] Diana Shaw Clark, Parashat Pinchas, 14/07/2022, Leo Baeck College 

[4] Although Joshua’s moderation is also debatable due to his actions vis-à-vis the Canaanites

[5] E. Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, 1929