Last week, for the parshat Balak, we were rather busy in studying the spiritual commitment and assistance to humans provided by animals in the Scripture, in particular Balaam and his she-donkey. This showed how the animal's influence is still significant today as the Morning Prayer blessing starts with the words of Balaam.
But this journey through the zoo theological assistance system did not allow us stopping at the major event that happened at the end of the reading portion (Bamidbar 25:1-9): the terrible account of the then-unheard "profaning of the Israelites at Shittim; they corrupted themselves by whoring (lezenot) with the daughters of Moab who invited them to the sacrifice for their god" (25:1-2). Thus, the Israelite Zimri publicly scorned at Moses and rejected the God of Israel and had open sexual intercourse with a Moabite.
This creates the link with "Pinchas (son of Eleazar son of Aaron)", the reading portion of this week which mainly deals with passion, zealotry in Bemidbar 25:10-30:1.Of course, it might be astounding that a she-ass corrected Balaam’s words or that a cock crowed in the event of a prophesied treason. But "committing harlotry with Moabite women and worship their god Baal Peor)" seems totally natural in the present. It is almost not shocking. It is not even a real sin.
The Sages had time to explain things and, let’s be cool, there must be some misunderstandings somewhere about the event. The situation is not a real question because - yes, we never heard a police horse refrain his rider to stab demonstrators in a riot, if any. But physical prostitution with pagan women and men… good gracious! This is so ten a penny! And then to have some little worshiping party with gods that line from trees to boats, bananas and incense boxes is just as fit as a fiddle even among the most remote Jewish buddy boo networks. People can be put at the stake with this sexual games and the year has been a rather hot one until just this very hour.
The real problem with Pinchas is that the man seeing this blasphemous circus, got very hot and mad at the scene and put all his passion in getting rid of the profanation. The method is not common at the present. Baal Peor is a small bigotry god compared to the constellation that we developed in the name of all monotheistic beliefs and new paganism. "The Lord said to Moses: "Take all the heads of the people and have them impaled (hoka otam) before the Lord in front of the sun (neged hashemesh = publicly)". Moses did listen to God, but one Israelite suddenly brought a Madianite woman for himself and his companions. Pinchas took a spear, followed them and stabbed her "in the belly - the maw/ el-kevatah". And God was pleased by Pinchas' passion to avenge the glorious Name of the Lord.
God Himself sent a plague that killed twenty-four thousand people among the Israelites to punish their idolatry and harlotry. He thus also praised Pinchas and said: " I grant him My Pact of peace - et briti shalom (wholeness, friendship, loyalty)”. Interestingly, God speaks about Pinchas as being “shalem – loyal” (1 Kings 8:61) or like Jacob who came back “shalem – safe and sound” to Sichem (Gen. 33:18).
He acknowledges Pinchas as an “allied friend”, a “sholem – co-worker” (Tehillim 7:5). The “Berit shalom – Pact of peace” definitely links Pinchas to the Prophet Elijah as regards the frenzy killings of the Baal worshipers perpetrated by the Prophet on Mount Carmel. It also connects to the “Covenant of peace” described by Prophet Isaiah 54:10: “The mountains may move, and the hills be shaken, my loyalty (chasdi) shall never move from you, nor the Pact of My friendship (brit shlomi) be shaken – said the Lord with loving-kindness”.
There is a problem indeed. “Shalom” does not mean “peace”. Pinchas stabbing attitude that slaughtered a woman and her carnal partner through the maw (a bit bestial) corresponds with the order that God gave to Moses to impale all the idolaters and the whoring Israelites. At the present, after 2,000 years of squeamish strictness along the Diasporas, Judaism and Christianity have developed similar kinds of Puritanism and this Divine decree and Pinchas’ murder would be considered as a proof of some Old Testament avenging God of wrath.
Generations of Jews and Christian alike have been educated with awe, which is contrasting with the Oriental Jewish and Christian tradition, basically because of the absence of the “Original sin theology” that is more pregnant in the East. But this weekly portion has raised awe and fear among both the Jews and the Christians.
We call peace all the day upon Jerusalem, upon the world. In Hebrew, it firstly means that we believe in “justice” as in this Pact concluded by God with Pinchas (Num. 25:12). Is it so inhuman to explain the situation in such a way? Or are we cheating and fooling each other and God’s Divine Presence as we gossip like in a parrot fashion about peace and have been paying billions of billions of new old currencies over centuries to reach some dubious cease-fire treaties?
Moses officials impaled the wrongdoers and Pinchas got a covenant of friendship with God after his infuriated slaughter. Justice induces passion. This has nothing to do with our justice. Right and righteousness, legacy is an obsession in the Semitic and Greek-Latin world of the Scripture. It certainly brought some insights about the way love slowly showed up throughout the ages.
True, John the Baptist and Jesus have terrible words about God’s wrath, family hatred and wars (Matthew 3:10; 24:6).It is quite another prospect to say that one accepts God’s decisions: “Atah tzaddik al kol haba alay – You are just in all that happens to me” (Ps. 51:7). And we must handle these words very carefully because we do miss a lot a real understanding in terms of “verticality”, of God as acting in our lives like the woman towards Adam: “ezer kenegdo = a helper against our will”.
Peace does not imply the absence of conflicts or a crooked method to avoid quarreling if not more. “Shalom” comes from “shalem” which may be broken down into a) “Hishlim – to complete” as “he freed his slave who completed the quorum of ten persons” (Berachot 47b); b) To end, cease: “They must fast the whole day till it ends”. (Yoma 82a); c) To make friends/ surrender: “He will pay does not mean money but that he will surrender the evil spirit and you will be friends” (Sukkot 52a).
Thus “shalem” refers to payments as “wiping out a pending debt of any sort” or “to give a reward, a recompense”: “beshalom – for the sake of total trust, faith, confidence”. We do not often think of the fact that “peace” includes and involves combats, payments, as “to redeem (padah) = to reimburse a debt or a loan over a long-term period.” “Peace” is fulfillment and achieving or reaching out to specific goals. “Menuchah – quietness” is closer to what we usually would consider as “hesychia – time of rests, silence” and peaceful balance.
The Israeli society can give the impression of a quiet and patient atmosphere. By the time of Pinchas and the episode with Baal-Peor, our ancestors might have been more “grilling on fires and boiling”. There is a lot of aggressiveness under control that bursts out of a sudden.
But the real problem in the reading portion of this week is that Pinchas is a man of passion, a zealot; say, he is right but the way he corrects the situation is full of anger, passion, zeal and frankly beyond reason and irrationality. To begin with, “kinah/Aramaic kina = jealousy, passion”: “My zeal for Your house has been my undoing (ate me up) / ki kinat beytcha achalteni” (Tehillim 69:10; cf. John 2:17). Or, “I am consumed with rage-zeal / Tzimtachni kinati” (Ps. 119:139). Prophet Elijah has the same when killing the worshipers of the Baal.
It starts with a zeal than cannot be stopped in order to implement something considered as vital and true, essential. Passion is not only “pathos” or feelings that are close to cruel sufferings affecting thoughts, desires, impulses, reflections.
This leads or can develop into some pathology indeed. “Jealousy, lust and ambition carry man out of the world (= he quits himself and reality)” (Avot 4:21). On the other hand, “emulation among the scholars increases wisdom” (Bava Bathra 21a/22a). “Kanna’in/m” were the zealots during the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans (Numbers Rabba 20). The root means in the Semitic language an in-depth thirst that cannot be reasoned or quenched. It concerns the desire to possess and control truth. Then, people want to act in the name of this veracity or presupposed truth beyond any self-control or capacity of taking some distance.
Judaism is curiously balanced with peaks of irrationality and acts of violence and a profound, unique sense of loving-kindness, compassion and analysis. In comparison, Russian “strasti = (feelings of) passions” that may totally overcome and possess a soul with dangerous abilities to twirling passions and dreams.
This may explain, for example, why Slavic souls extensively refer to dreams interpretation or underscore their importance in their subconscious, virtual and real day and night reality. The Semites are quite the same. Indeed, faith is the way to combat the raw basic instinct of fancies, fantasizing thoughts and attain a serene and untroubled state of spiritual and physical balance.
It is a gift to be given a “brit shalom = Pact of friendship” sealed by God. Now, all the systems of beliefs and religion and thus Judaism, Christianity and Islam have shown horrible times when zealots acted as true “terrorists of God”. Purity of faith and acts often climaxed in the Kiddush HaShem (sacrifice), as during the siege of Jerusalem or at Masada. But who can pretend to be an envoy of the Lord (the same exists among the Christian and Muslim without the problem of any “missionary activity”)? Who can have the nerve to work in the very Name of the Only One and claim to be zealous at the present, without confusion?
The root for “Kinah = passion” is “to acquire”. This means that such envoys calling for peace were “acquired” by God and they did not capture Him. Talmud Tractate Gittin positively recounts the life and martyrdom of John the Baptist which the Eastern Orthodox Church will celebrate on Saturday, in particular in Ein Karem were his parents lived.
His words of penance were zealous and apparently revengeful. On the other hand, it is certain that he was beheaded as the consequence of an autocrat’s passionate oath to accept any desire expressed by a power-thirsty daughter obeying to her corrupt mother (Matthew 14:10). In this full passion-consumed environment, John appears to be a man of peace and considered as a link with Prophet Elijah. True zealots either disappear in the merkavah/chariot or are humbled till they are beheaded but their souls can’t be killed. They emulate and sustain faith.