by Raphael Magarik
Raphael Magarik is a graduate student in English at the University of California, Berkeley.
This week we read Parshat Pinchas, which opens with God’s approval of Pinchas’s vigilante killing of Zimri, an Israelite prince, who is sleeping with Cosbi, a Midianite princess (Numbers, 21:1-15). Liberal Jews are used to being alienated from Pinchas or condemning him, but this week, some of us uncomfortably find ourselves in Pinchas’s position.
The people of Israel have sinned. The blood of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, the innocent Palestinian teenager brutally killed by Israeli Jews, is on our hands, and we know it. Our centrist and right-wing friends are sending letters to the parents and posting outraged Facebook statuses. As the Torah says, Zimri was sinning, “while they were weeping at the door of the tent of meeting.”
And we lefties find ourselves with the unwelcome, and frankly despicable task of reminding everyone that, if you have been paying attention, you know the occupation regularly takes Palestinian lives. That the latest futile escalation with Hamas will not bring safety to the besieged South, but it has killed eighty Palestinians, including children, and it will kill more (though to be sure, much of that blood is on Hamas’s hands). That Prime Minister Netanyahu has cynically resurrected house demolition—an immoral, failed deterrence policy discarded by the Israeli military, and that his cabinet will use recent calamities to build more settlements.
In other words, at the very moment that the children of Israel know they are in trouble, even as there is a plague in the camp and weeping at the tent of meeting, we are required to be zealous for the Lord, to spurn our people’s repentance as insufficient and twist the spear in deeper. God rewards Pinchas with a “covenant of peace,” but can we really expect peace to result from our painful critique?
The Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers us an answer in his Torah commentary, the Kedushas Levi. He notes that God praises Pinchas because “he was very jealous for My sake among them,” and that the words “among them” (b’tokham) are extraneous. Further, the Berditchever observes that God actually rewards Pinchas doubly, with both “My covenant of peace” and the “covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” From this, he concludes, startlingly, that Pinchas is a double figure, someone who doles out divine punishment while standing amongst (b’tokh) the very people he is scourging. The Berditchever explains:
Generally, if a person, God forbid, sees others sinning, he becomes angry at them and he wreaks the jealousy of the God of hosts, and then, God forbid, he arouses [harsh] judgment on Israel. But Pinchas, though he wrought the jealousy of the God of hosts, nonetheless did not arouse judgments on them, God forbid, only great loving-kindnesses, and atoned for the Children of Israel, and was an advocate for Israel, as it says (Bavli Sanhedrin 82b), “He came and beat upon the ground and said, ‘Master of the World, on account of these [Zimri and Cosbi] shall 24,000 die?” And thus the Holy Blessed One gave Pinchas two rewards, the “covenant of peace” because he enacted divine jealousy, and the “covenant of an everlasting priesthood” because he was amidst the children of Israel and was not separate from them… and he atoned for him as is the attribute of a priest, who atones for the children of Israel… “he was very jealous for My sake” and nonetheless, he was “among them.”
We can learn about what the philosopher Michael Walzer calls “connected criticism” from Pinchas. Morally, we must hold together anger at leaders together with advocacy for ordinary people. To be sure, the princes of Israel and of Palestine are cavorting together in an unholy dance of incitement and violence. As Bertolt Brecht writes, “When it comes to marching many do not know / That their enemy is marching at their head… The man who speaks of the enemy / Is the enemy himself.” Their warmongers and ours are of the same party, which must be opposed.
But the people Israel are suffering! Our job is also to plead for them, to cry out for the children whose kindergartens are bomb shelters, for the children who are stolen from the crossroads and murdered in the night. We should be pounding on the ground about undeserved Israeli suffering. We must remind the world, ourselves, and God of the scandalous, impossible straits in which Israel finds itself. Our criticism can lead to peace, but only if we also advocate for our people.
Surprisingly, the Kedushas Levi associates our being close to Israel (b’tokham) with priesthood. Isn’t priesthood exactly about being holy, special, and separate? And indeed, critics of Israel often appoint themselves as nezirim, voluntary priests who will not drink wine lest, God forbid, it come from the Territories. But the Berditchever insists that whatever pretensions we have to leadership can be realized only through compassion for those we would lead. As the Kedushas Levi notes, killing should disqualify you from priesthood, so perversely, Pinchas had to give up his special status in order to earn it.
The priest’s personal holiness and ideological purity are subordinate. The point is to cleanse and intercede for the people. Looking at my Facebook wall, in email threads and conversations, I see both parts of Pinchas, but rarely together. The relentless skeptics of Bibi’s crazy cronies aren’t posting videos of rocket sirens at weddings, and those noting every Iron Dome interception are ignoring the total absence of vision from Israel’s leaders. May we all merit both to fight for a just peace and to serve our suffering people.