Have you ever watched an episode of a TV show that ends on an incredible cliffhanger? Maybe a main character suddenly dies, or someone’s true identity was shockingly revealed, or a huge plot twist was introduced just seconds before a fade to black. Whatever it might be, you sit there shocked, numbly watching the credits start to roll, trying to get your brain to function enough to formulate a response. It might take you minutes, hours, or even days to have processed the shock enough to be able to talk about it.
That feeling is the feeling I get from last week’s Torah portion. Most of the portion focuses on the story of Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet who despite setting out to curse the Israelites, blesses them – a blessing we still invoke every Shabbat morning with the words of Ma Tovu. But in the last few verses of the portion, there’s a sudden, dark turn. The Torah tells us that a number of Israelite men were having sexual relations with the nearby Moabite women – a big no-no in God’s mind as the men were going beyond carnal pleasures to making sacrifices to Baal-Peor. God then commands Moses to have all of these men impaled and killed. Pinchas, taking this command to heart, grabs his spear, follows one of these Israelite men entering into the woman’s chamber, and in one swift move stabs them both.
A Torah portion not for the faint of heart.
How suddenly the narrative of the Torah shifts! Our sacred scroll is certainly not lacking in PG-13 or R-rated stories. But this shift from blessing to promiscuity and holy murder is more than a little jarring. And then, it just stops. And we spend all week waiting for the next episode, concluding this sub-plot.
There are so many directions this story could go. God could punish Pinchas for taking too much initiative, echoing God’s message from Deuteronomy, “Vengeance is mine.” Pinchas could have jump-started a war between the Israelites and the Moabites. Moses could reward Pinchas for relieving him of this bloody task, allowing Moses to remain pure. Pinchas could start imagining his hands stained in blood long after he’s been cleansed, giving rise to Lady Macbeth’s “out, out, damn spot” centuries later.
What really happens, however, on the next installment of Torah is that God recognizes that Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, was jealous on God’s behalf. In gratitude, God grants Pinchas a Brit Shalom, God’s covenant of peace, and a promise of eternal priesthood.
It is hard for me to get on board with God’s reward to a man so zealous and impulsive that religious murder is condoned. It’s hard for me to read a story of such extreme xenophobia from our ancestors that the only response was to swiftly strike the perpetrators and their lineage from the tribe. It’s hard for me to even speak about this story without heavy judgment and disappointment.
More and more, I find myself hearing or reading stories and struggling to form words or remain open to other points of view.
It’s not just Pinchas who shocks me into silence. It seems like everyday something happens, and it feels too shocking to respond. I know I’m not alone in this. And I also know that I’m not alone when I say that my usual first response after shock is anger. But anger is a tricky thing. It’s genuine and heartfelt, it usually comes with some form of pain and sadness. And it’s particularly hard for someone else to hear. All too often, anger stops conversation.
We don’t live in the time of Pinchas anymore – where tribes were forbidden from interaction. We don’t live in the time of shtetls anymore – where minorities stuck to a corner of the world to inhabit but go no further. We don’t live in the time of isolation anymore – where we can shrug off events and opinions because “they’re not speaking for me” or “they don’t affect me.”
Today, in our multicultural, multi-vocal, multi-political, and multi-ideological world we are bombarded with “different” – different moralities, different behavior norms, different beliefs. When we encounter them we are often shocked into silence, or shocked into anger, and close ourselves off from conversation, thereby closing ourselves off from understanding. We instinctively react like Pinchas, thrusting our spears into those whom we deem as wrong, eagerly expecting our actions to lead to peace.
But we don’t live in the time of Pinchas anymore, and peace is no longer bestowed by divine proclamation. Peace is now in our hands to create, and it is never complete if it is done alone. It is natural and healthy to have knee-jerk reactions when surprised by the world, but that cannot be the end of the episode. We must follow through. We must strive, not to convince, but to understand those who are different from us. We must work not to kill, but to inspire honest sharing of the ideals that we hold most dear. We must push aside our jealousies and judgements to invite a frank and open vision of who the “other” is, and perhaps to meet in the middle.
It seems that nowadays, the world leaves us hanging from so many cliffs. The only way to continue the story, is to write it ourselves, and to write it together.