Sermon – Pinchas: From zealotry to peace

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 July 2018

It’s one of the oldest tricks in the story telling book, used on television, films when you want to get a sequel, books and in other places.   End the story on a cliff hanger and people will need to come back.

It’s a long time ago – now 38 years but I still remember the power of the “Who shot J.R.” cliff-hanger in the TV show Dallas – you just to come back for the next season to find out what had happened to the main character.   Then if you were a fan of Friends there was the one at Ross’s wedding to Emily in London where instead of saying Emily’s name in the wedding wows he said Rachel.  Cue end titles.

The soap East Enders used to do it all the time – some dramatic moment unresolved then dum dum dum dum……  Who Wants to be a Millionaire, same formula – don’t end on a person winning the million, end a step before, they’ll have to come back.   The Love Island editing makes sure you don’t get to find out what’s happened unless you return.

Charles Dickens published his books in the Nineteenth Century using the cliff hanger convention.  They were published in parts and he would make sure you had to wait for and buy the next part to know what had happened to Little Nell or Oliver Twist.   There were reports of near rioting in the Port of Boston when a new episode of one of his part works would be landed from England, from his fans waiting to buy the next edition.

The convention though is as old as the hills.  The Torah uses it frequently.    The portions have been divided in the way we have them now for a good two thousand years.   The Rabbis who did this had a keen sense of the cliff-hanger.   It begins in the first portion of the Torah – Bereshit.

The final words of the portion which take us from Creation, to the story of Adam and Eve, then Cain and Abel are “God said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth…But Noah found favour in the eyes of God.”   (Genesis 6:7-8)  What’s going to happen?   Will the earth be destroyed?  Who is this man Noah?   What does he have to do with it?   Come back next Shabbat to hear the portion Noach and you will find out.

The Rabbis did this many times in dividing up the Torah.  In the Exodus portion Va’era you hear the first seven plagues that Moses did in front of Pharaoh and still he won’t let the Israelites go.   Then the story stops and you don’t find out if Pharaoh will ‘let my people go’ unless you come back next Shabbat for Torah portion Bo – which contains the final three plagues and the rush into the wilderness.

This Shabbat Alex and Yael read from the end of the Torah portion Pinchas.   It begins by resolving the cliff-hanger that was set up last Shabbat at the end of the Torah portion Balak.   That’s going to be the focus of this sermon.

Right at the end of last week’s portion Pinchas, the grandson of Moses the High Priest did something very violent and we don’t know as we leave Synagogue what is going to happen until this week.  I guess that’s why you are here this Shabbat!

So, at the end of Balak the Israelites have got into the territory of Moab, modern day South Jordan.  It has been a great struggle but crucial in their journey to the Promised Land.   Rather than walking on through, the Israelite men begin getting very fond of the Moabite women.  There are impressionable children here so I won’t tell too much.  Suffice it to say that a prominent Israelite, Zimri, is caught by Pinchas in a compromising position with a Moabite woman called Cozbi, a name which means ‘Voluptuous’, Love Island is more relevant to this sermon than you might have thought.    Pinchas kills them both.   Cue final blessing of the portion, the Torah version of the East Enders theme tune. (Numbers 25:9)

We must wait to find out this week what happens, including the names of the now dead couple.   And what will happen to Pinchas?   Will he be punished?   We he be congratulated?  Will there be vengeance from man or God?

The answer is this:   God grants Pinchas His ‘Brit Shalom’ – a personal covenant of peace.  (Numbers 25:12) Not only that but God says effectively “I am pleased with you Pinchas – the line of the Cohanim, the priesthood is going to be with you and your descendants forever.”  Proof for this is then provided later in the Bible in the Book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 5:34) where the line of the Cohanim is traced from Pinchas to the High Priest Zadok who gave his name to the Sadducee movement for conservative priesthood.

The decision to divide the portions where they are split serves to underline the oddity that God gives this violent man his covenant of peace.   The Rabbis worked hard with this anomaly.  You can see the result in Midrash Numbers Rabbah (21:1).    They decided that before Pinchas became the priest he had to turn away from violence and become a man of peace.   That was the consequence of Pinchas’s misplaced zealotry.    This Midrash explains:

Great is peace, the gift made to Pinchas! For the world could not be maintained except by peace, and the Torah is wholly peace; as it says, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace (Prov 3:17)” [ Which we sing as we put away the Torah and close the Ark every week]. If a person comes from a journey he is received with the greeting of Peace, Shalom Aleichem. … The blessings around Hear, O Israel (Deut. 6:4 ff.) conclude with the words: “God spreads his shelter of peace over us”[in our evening service – the Haschivenu prayer]  The Amidah prayer concludes with peace (Oseh shalom bimromav). The priestly benediction concludes with peace (V’yasem l’cha shalom). R. Simeon b. Halafta observed: There is no vessel that holds a blessing save peace; as it says, “The Eternal will give strength to God’s people; the Eternal will bless His people with peace (Ps. 29:11).”

Jews don’t admire the man of violence.   We admire the person who turns to peace to continue their journey through life.    Pinchas is called in the Torah portion a zealot, a man who is kana, thinks his violence is on behalf of God.

The Rabbis are sure that we remember him not for this violence but because he learned to be peaceful.   Rabbi Leon Morris quotes the Chasidic Rabbi B Y Natan who is certain that God’s offering of a covenant of peace to Pinchas is intended to bring us back next Shabbat to Synagogue knowing that Pinchas changed and found peaceful ways to deal with behaviour that he felt he had to challenge – and no longer did violence in the mistaken belief that he was doing so for God.

We know how dangerous and destructive that way of thinking can be.   Let’s start with violence that people might think is at arm’s length so it does not harm.   I have recently been shown the string of abusive, violent threats of death and injury that were sent by Jewish people on social media and comment threats to the people who were involved in the “Kaddish for Gaza” action.   Whether or not you agreed with the action, and we Alyth Rabbis did not think much of it as a response, sending misogynistic violent threats to 21-year-old women is absolutely the wrong way to react – yet hundreds of Jews decided to do so. This was wrong.

This week we enter the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem.  That is why we heard the blood curdling Haftarah of rebuke from Jeremiah this Shabbat.  Our tradition is clear that the destruction of the Temple was made possible not just by Babylonian and the Roman aggression but also by the sinat chinam, groundless hatred, between one group of Jews for another, the hatred of the kenaim, the zealots for those who did not rebel.  It meant that it was not possible to find peace for generations.

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the terrible attacks on London trains and busses which on 7th July 2005 claimed the lives of 56 Londoners and injured nearly 800 more.  The four men recorded in their testimony before they carried out these murders that they thought they were acting on behalf of God, in a perversion of Islam.  Their zealotry is just the worst kind of example of what happens when you feel that attacking people by words, deeds or violence is a Godly act.

Our Rabbis, as Judaism developed on from the Torah, have taught us that it is not.   On the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 attacks the Imam of the Leeds Makkah Mosque in which three of the murderers had worshipped led a group of more than 50 Leeds Muslims, people of other religions and none to London for an act of peaceful commemoration of the victims.   The group stopped off here at Alyth Synagogue before going into London, as part of their Brit Shalom, their covenant of peace, knowing that a member of our congregation, Miriam Hyman z’’l had been among the victims.

The scholar Rashi says that Pinchas’s mistake was taking zealotry for God into his own hands.   God is a zealous God, it says so in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5).   What God needs of us to be God’s hands to make peace, not strife.   For our words to be words of peace in person or on the internet, our actions to be actions of peace and our striving for progress to be striving for peace.