Sign In Forgot Password

Cantorial Comment - Parshat Pinchas                                  July 27, 2019 - 24 Tammuz 5779

07/26/2019 10:58:09 AM


“With great power comes great responsibility.”   -    Spiderman

Greetings from my honeymoon!  Well, not quite.  As I write this article, Jamie and I are on a plane heading to Jamaica, so I’m not in too much trouble for working on our vacation.  The last month for us has been equal amounts of wonderfulness and exhaustion, and we are simply bursting with gratitude for our parents, families, extended families, friends and community who have surrounded us with so much love during this most exciting time in our lives.

Of course, Jamie and I are looking forward to this very special time together, but we’re also using this time to calm down from all of the excitement, and just recharge our batteries.  More and more, we all deserve some time to disconnect from the world a bit, which seems to get more exhausting each year.  Every thought and idea by every human connected to social media from politicians to celebrities, from long lost acquaintances on the other side of the world to next-door neighbours, seems to affect us almost every hour of every day.  All of them compete for our increasingly limited attention, and many even resort to extreme acts and antics in order to rise above the noise and get their messages heard.  The world then becomes a place of extremism, and getting a vacation from it every once in a while, seems more and more necessary in order to preserve our own sanity.

As a society, we tend to criticize extreme acts, especially those clearly done for no more reason than to force us to pay attention.  I admit that I am no exception, as I often criticize the Women of The Wall who, while championing the noble cause tolerance for inclusive egalitarian prayer at the Kotel in Jerusalem, typically organize ‘stunts’ which force confrontation with police, fighting while holding Torah scrolls, and usually ends up with several protesters in jail.  But perhaps, at the same time, the stunts work too.  After all, I’m talking about them, even though I’m not happy about it. While we all love to espouse our belief in our western criminal justice system, it’s not coincidental that movies featuring vigilante super-heroes that operate above/outside the law are so popular, and that is because we all are forced to admit that we live in a world where justice often goes unserved and isn’t the perfect and equitable place we all want it to be.  Paraphrasing the words of the Commissioner Gordon from the Batman comics, vigilantes may not be the heroes that the world deserves, but perhaps they are the heroes that the world occasionally needs.

This week’s parsha, Pinchas, opens with a story that is hard for our modern sensibilities to absorb and for the traditional commentators to explain.  Pinchas, grandson of High Priest Aaron, happens upon a Israelite man who is ‘fraternizing’ with a Midianite woman.  “When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he arose from the assembly and took a spear in his hand, and followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through her belly.” (Num. 25:7-8).  Incredibly, Moses and God REWARD Pinchas for his zealotry, “Say therefore, I [God] grant him my Covenant of Peace.  It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of Eternal Priesthood, for he was zealous for his God, and atoned for the Israelites” (Num. 25:12-13).

The best way to understand the approach of the traditional commentators to this difficult moral issue in the text, I believe, is through the example of a real historical figure who, himself, committed the most gruesome acts known to man, but who saw himself as a realist, sacrificing the few to save the many.  For this, his image was forever iconified as one of history’s most terrifying horror villains… Dracula.  

Bram Stoker, author of the 1897 fictional novel, “Dracula”, based his character on the historical ruler of Wallachia (province of Romania), Vlad III Dracula (1428-1477), also known as Vlad the Impaler. Far from a villain, Dracula was (and is) considered a national hero of Romania, having defended his people against both Ottoman and Saxon invasion.  Dracula earned his cognomen as “the impaler” for taking captured soldiers back to Wallachia from Transylvania to have them impaled as a gruesome warning all those who would terrorize his citizens.  By doing so, Dracula became notorious for his barbarity, and instilled fear into his friends and enemies alike.  He became a monster who invaded the nightmares of soldiers, but he also likely averted years of war for Wallachia, saving many soldiers’ lives on both sides.  Meanwhile, in the Torah, God responds to  the actions of Pinchas “the impaler” who “has turned my [God’s] anger away from the children of Israel by his zelously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal” (Num. 25:11).  In last week’s parsha, the Midianites seduced the Israelites into turning away from God and worshipping the Canaanite God, Baal Peor in a ceremony involving all manner of immoral behaviour.  God then punished the Israelites with a plague which then ended the parsha. It seems that at the beginning of the parsha this week, the punishment wasn’t meant to be over yet, but for the intervention of Pinchas.  Pinchas’ actions cut through the roaring crowds and captured everyone’s attention, not unlike the kinds of things that attract our attention in the media which trigger our disdain.

So then why is Pinchas not punished?  Is it not meant to be the fate of those that commit atrocities, like Dracula, even for good reason, to sacrifice their good name in the process?  Not necessarily.  As we mentioned, Vlad the Impaler is not a bloodthirsty demon in Romanian legend, but a hero.  It really all depends upon who is telling the story.  We may not agree with Pinchas’ actions, but would the Jewish people be around today without them?  Pinchas may not have been a hero, but perhaps he was the vigilante that we needed.

Shabbat Shalom,

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780