This week's Torah reading begins by dealing with the aftermath of a horrific event at the end of last week's reading. God has brought a plague on the Israelites because of their sexual immorality and idolatry. In the midst of the plague, an Israelite publicly sins with a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and the whole congregation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, picks up his spear and kills them both. And the plague is checked.
What does this story mean? Well, it's complicated. Clearly, the people whom Pinchas killed were sinning, and the situation was extreme, yet Pinchas's action is a shocking departure from the rule of law that the Torah has been patiently building up. It seems that he has roughly and violently taken the law into his own hands. How will God respond?
In this week's reading, we get our answer. God says, "I hereby grant him my pact of shalom [peace]" (Numbers 25:12). Some read this as a reward to Pinchas for his zealous reaction to sin, but there is good reason to read it differently. First, the word "shalom" in this verse is written in the Torah with a broken letter, the letter "vav."
There is something broken about peace that is created through violence. It seems that the Torah is indicating that although the plague has stopped, something still needs to be mended — in Pinchas and in the world.
Second, each time that Pinchas's name is given, he is referred to as the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. Aaron is known in Jewish tradition as the most peaceful of men. While Moses is the Israelites' law-giver and judge and Miriam is their healer, Aaron is the one who keeps the people together by reconciling their conflicts.
It is told that he would approach people who are quarreling and sit with each of them separately to try to turn their hearts toward each other and make peace between them. Linking Pinchas's name to Aaron's is another way that the Torah seems to be emphasizing the contrast between Pinchas's actions and the ways of peace.
We can read Pinchas's covenant of peace not as a reward but as a form of corrective action. Since Pinchas has demonstrated that he is far from the ways of peace, God involves Pinchas in a covenant of peace to turn him from the route of violence, to mend the peace he has shattered, and to turn him toward the ways of his grandfather, Aaron, the pursuer of peace.
And we have some evidence that God's effort to push Pinchas toward peace bore fruit. Pinchas reappears in the Book of Joshua at a crucial moment (Joshua 22). The tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh have fulfilled their promise to help settle the land of Israel and have returned to their holdings on the east side of the Jordan River that they were assigned by Moses.
But the Israelites hear that those tribes have built their own altar there, seemingly cutting themselves off from the rest of the people. The Israelites are ready to go to war against these seemingly rebellious tribes. But first, they decide to send a messenger to the tribes in a last-ditch attempt to avert war: Pinchas.
This time, Pinchas does not act rashly. He listens to the explanation the tribes offer for the altar and finds it reasonable. And war is averted. In the end, Pinchas finally learns the true meaning of the covenant of peace.
Rabbi Adam Zeff is the rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]