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Haftorah Jeremiah 1:1-2:3
One of the dilemmas that we, the Jewish people, must contend with living in the Diaspora, is that the philosophy of society in general and that of Judaism, are often diametrically opposed.
One such dilemma is that we believe that every "religious act" we do must be understood to be justified. People today are obsessed with significance. So often we refuse to accept the "will" of a higher authority, unless we can comprehend the meaning behind His will. The Jewish attitude to Mitzvot does not always factor in subjective significance.
The Torah which means "transmission of law" is comprised of 613 Mitzvot (the plural of Mitzvah - commandment), 248 positive Mitzvot (love your neighbor, honor your parents etc.) and 365 negative Mitzvot (do not steal, do not accept bribes, etc.). The Torah can also be divided into other categories of Mitzvot. There are Mishpatim (logical Mitzvot - to be charitable, or not to lie) and Chukim (illogical Mitzvot - to wear Tzitzit - fringes on four cornered garments, or not to mix milk and meat products together). All of these Mitzvot, are the "commands" of the Holy One the Blessed, Master of the Universe, who entered into a binding covenant with the entire nation of Israel at Sinai.
We are a nation of witnesses, who saw, experienced and became the bearers of His directive for a divine existence. Our observance of His Mitzvot is not only a manifestation of our obedience, but also of our love for Him. And to the degree that we observe, we bind ourselves to Him - for the Mitzvot - are the manifestation of His will and the revelation of His love.
The Hebrew word for "religious" is Dati, which literally means law-abiding. Whether we can find "meaning" to the Mitzvot or not does not deter from the charge, to acquiesce to His law. Our choice is either to perform the Mitzvah willingly or, to act in defiance of His Will.
Often, what we assumed was the meaning behind a Mitzvah, became insignificant in later generations. An example, is the Mitzvah that prohibits the eating of swine flesh. Many people believed that the purpose of this prohibition was to avoid trichinosis, a disease passed on to humans through the consumption of the filthy swine. In an age of government inspected meat, the prospect of contracting this disease is practically impossible. Whole groups of Jews disregarded this important Mitzvah because it they believed that the Mitzvah lost its relevance in the modern world.
Two weeks ago, in Parshat Chukat (Bamidbar 16:1-18:32), the Torah related the Mitzvah of Para Adumah - the Red Heifer. The details of this Chok (a statute - a Torah law that defies logic and understanding) are clearly spelled out. During Temple times, anyone who came in contact with a dead person became Tameh - ritually impure. To remove the impurity, one must go through a cleansing process, which culminated in being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the Para Adumah. This Chok, by definition, cannot be understood, yet it must be obeyed.
Another dilemma that we face today living within a foreign culture, is based on the very nature of human emotions. Our society often classifies the various human emotions in either positive or negative terms.
For example, love is considered a positive emotion and therefore anything that stems from love must also be good. Hate is considered a negative emotion and therefore anything which stems from hate must be bad or evil. I believe that the change in moral values that this generation is experiencing, is based on the above flawed theory. Therefore, illicit relationships are not considered to be a wrong since it is founded in love, or, the hatred of evil, by definition, can only lead to an unjust evil.
Judaism on the other hand comprehends that each particular emotion may have positive or negative applications, depending on how it is applied. The parent who displays his love by not disciplining his child is actually harming both the child and society, even though the source of the dilemma is a misdirected sense of love. Remember the old adage, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
The seemingly cruel parent who forces his child to swallow bitter medicine, is actually performing an act of kindness, regardless of how the child might forever perceive that act. Each and every emotion has positive and negative applications, but they are all good, if applied properly.
For these reasons, our Parsha this week is so difficult to come to grips with. Everything that we associate with the greatness of Jewish jurisprudence, is challenged. Both the Oral and Written traditions of our Torah process, sets up a clearly defined judicial procedure. A person who transgressed one of Hashem's 613 commandments, could only be brought to trial if the act was corroborated by two acceptable witnesses, both of whom had warned the wrongdoer that what he was about to do was against the Torah (Devarim 17:6-13).
Just witnessing a murder, would not be enough without Shnei Edim (two witnesses) and Hatra'ah (warning). Hashem the Supernal Judge, will eventually bring about true justice for the crime if no witnesses come forth. In fact, many rabbinical sources view our Jewish system of Justice as being the atonement phase of repentance.
Last weeks Parsha, Parshat Balak (Bamidbar 25:1-9), ended with entry of Moabite and Midianite prostitutes, who enticed the men of Israel to act indecently, to eat and drink forbidden food and to worship the most disgusting of all the idols, Ba'al Peor. In a public display of carnal abandonment, Zimri the prince of the tribe of Shimon and Kozbi the princess of Midian flaunted their passion (ibid 14). They were executed without trial, by Pinchas, before the eyes of the entire assembly. Yet Pinchas, the namesake and hero of THIS week's Parsha, did not follow the clearly defined rules of Justice.
Our Parsha this week begins:
"And Hashem said to Moshe saying. Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, has turned away My wrath from the Children of Israel, in that he was zealous for My sake among them and I did not consume the Children of Israel in my jealousy."
Pinchas, outraged at the behavior of one of Israel's most influential leaders, grabbed a spear and ran it through the united bodies of Zimri and Kozbi and carried them out for the entire nation to observe and become ashamed. He is not only "not" guilty of murder, but the Torah praises him, and is given a special reward a "covenant of peace" by Hashem.
This is a very difficult passage in the Torah. First of all, Pinchas - a described zealot - took the law into his own hands. Secondly, he does not suffer retribution by the family of Zimri or by tribe of Shimon. And thirdly, is rewarded for his act.
The commentators agree that Pinchas' action was within compliance of the law. Moshe had previously taught that a public display of lewdness, by a leader of the nation, was immediately punishable by death, without trial (Tractate Sanhedrin). This law is an exception to the usual laws of Shnei Edim and Hatra'ah.
But this passage in the Torah stills leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths. Here we are faced with the two above mentioned dilemmas. Society defines zealousness as wrong and the conclusions of this episode seem incomprehensible. Let us try to understand Pinchas in light of the Torah's celebration of his actions.
When the Torah introduces Pinchas to us at the very beginning of our Parsha, he is referred to as, "Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest." Aharon was a unique individual in Jewish history. He was not only the brother and spokesman of Moshe, he was also a beloved leader of Israel. The Mishna in Pirke Avot (1:12) states:
"Be like the disciples of Aharon, a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace."
When the Torah gives Pinchas' genealogy, we are being reminded that he, his father and grandfather before him, were men of peace and were motivated first and foremost by a tremendous sense of love for their fellow man. Pinchas may have acted in a zealous manner, but that zealousness was a product of his love not his anger. As difficult as this may be to fathom, we must accept it as true for the Torah has depicted Pinchas as a hero.
Reb Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l, the former Rosh Hayeshiva (Dean) of the Mir Yeshivah (in Poland and Jerusalem) once described Jewish zealots who destroyed the windows in his Yeshivah and claimed that they were acting as Pinchas in their zeal. He said, Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen - first one must be a disciple of Aharon and a disciple of Elazar - who were Ohevi Shalom and Rodefi Shalom - lovers of peace and pursuers of peace - then you can be a zealot. Never use Pinchas' zeal as an excuse for despicable behavior.
Every person has dominant traits in his personality. If he is zealous by nature, then he will justify his behavior by citing Pinchas as the prime example of this trait. That is not so, Pinchas was at his very core a loving person. But at this particular moment in history, zeal was called for, not the improper application of love. Pinchas altered his dominant personality to affect a cleansing of Am Yisrael.
When I lived in Winnipeg, there was a particular Rabbi that I didn't get along with. Once, I did something that he didn't approve of and in a public forum began to rebuke me. I interrupted him and asked him to "first kiss me, show me that you love me and I will accept your rebuke." He was confounded by my words and continued to reprimand me. Again I interrupted him and asked him to kiss me. Frustrated, he gave me a kiss and then had nothing left to say. His display of love of ones fellow man, tempered his feelings of anger and effected me stronger than mere words of rebuke. Our relationship forever changed and for the better, I might add.
Like the Chok of Parshat Chukat, there are some things that we cannot fully understand. But the Torah is the word of Hashem and each word is truth. If we cannot fully comprehend something, it is OUR flaw and not the Torah's.
We must believe that Pinchas was a hero of Israel. Not only is he described as such, but an entire Parsha of the Torah was named after him. We must mold our sensibilities to the Torah's definitions of right and wrong. We must try to dislodge the effects of living in the Diaspora, divorced from our own culture and influenced by a flawed and often corrupt value system. Then and only then can Israel be effective in changing the world around us, by being a light unto the nations.
One of the understandings of Pinchas' covenant of peace was that his soul was reincarnated into Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet). In last week's Haftorah portion (I Kings 18:46 - 19:21) Malachi in his famous prophesy states:
"Remember the laws of Moshe My servant, whom I commanded at Horeb for all of Israel, Chukim and Mishpatim. Behold, I will send Eliya Hanavi, before the coming of that great and awesome day of the L-rd. And he shall turn the hearts of parents to the children and the hearts of children to the parents..."May we all soon see that awesome day, heralded by Pinchas/Eliyahu Hanavi, who will realign the values of all generations to the logical and seemingly irrational aspects of the Torah. So that we might again regain the energy of revelation and serve our true purpose to enlighten the world to the message of the One and True G-d.
Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
Shema Yisrael Torah Network