This week’s parashah is “Pinchas.” You will find it in the Book of Numbers 25:10-30:1. It is a fascinating section dealing with two opposite personalities, that of Pinchas (Phinehas in English) and of Tzilfchod (Zelophehad in English). It also has a great deal to teach us who live in a period of great political turmoil and when opposing political sides seem incapable of “hearing” or understanding other opinions.
Pinchas was a man of absolute certainty. For example, seeing an Israelite man, Zimri, (meaning a “man of song”) having a sexual encounter with a Midinite woman, he killed them both. Pinchas never questioned the righteousness of his actions. Interestingly, the text calls Pinchas a “kanai” meaning “zealot for” or “jealous of.” The adjective kanai comes from the verb k-n-h meaning: to buy, possess, or be materialistic.
As the United States celebrates its 242nd anniversary and independence from British tyranny, this parashah speaks to us directly.
We can argue about Pinchas’ actions from multiple levels. Was he justified, as the text indicates, or was he a so zealous that he was willing to take another’s life to prove a point?
Today, as a nation, we also seem to have become a nation of zealots. So many are so convinced that only their “side” is correct that they have ceased even to hear the other. In the name of “democracy,” we see violence, and free speech has all but disappeared from our university campuses. In fact, universities have now become centers of “political correctness” run amok. Of course, this is not the first time that the US has seen such deep divisions, but it is one of the few times when the “other” is shouted down by people on both sides who are convinced that they are absolutely correct and the other is absolutely wrong. Do we fear to hear what the other person thinks?
This text seems to be playing with the dialectic of fear and certainty. When ought we to be certain and when should we fear? Is the text teaching us that one of the greatest challenges we face is the need balance fear with certainty? When is fear merely a neurotic form of inaction leading to destruction and when is zealousness foolhardy? Neither is good; both can be harmful and both are part of the human condition.
This week’s parashah does not provide us with a guideline for choice; rather it allows us the freedom to decide, to make our own choices and to be forced to live with the consequences of those choices. Hard choices, that ironically cannot be made if we fear too much or are so overconfident that we sacrifice democratic principles for misguided certainty. What do you think?
Youtubes of the week:
Four US Patriot Songs for the Fourth of July
This land is your land. Interpreted by Peter, Paul, & Mary:
America the Bautiful:
Kate Smith’s classic: God Bless America:
The national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner: As interpreted by Beyoncé: