In our Torah, “seeing” is described as a miracle. That’s not to say that our ancestors the Israelites wandered through the wilderness without seeing where they were going. In fact, very few individuals in the Torah are described as living with a disability. However, an equally few number of individuals are described as being gifted the ability to see – to see the true world around them and the potential it is failing to reach. This gift of sight, often referred to with the Hebrew word chazon, is a key component to the role of a prophet.
It seems to me that Pinchas – the namesake of our portion, Israelite priest, and grandson of Aaron – must have believed he had the gift of sight. Why else would he have had such a forceful and violent response to those who broke God’s law. Earlier, God had commanded the Israelites to be careful in their relations with neighboring peoples. They were not to adopt foreign practices nor were they to engage in sexual acts with them. Predictably, some Israelites were not able to live up to these rules and engaged in sinful acts with the Moabites. Seeing this, Pinchas took it upon himself not only to stop their behavior but to see to their punishment. He followed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman into a tent and impaled them both on one spear.
But the word used to describe Pinchas’ witnessing of the sinful act is not chazon, nor does the text use the euphemistic phrase “his eyes were opened.” Instead, the text says “vayar Pinchas…”, “and Pinchas saw.” What exactly did Pinchas think he saw?
Traditional biblical interpreters would say that Pinchas was absolutely within his rights and responsibilities. The Israelite man and many others had broken their covenant with God, God’s rage was expressed as a plague, and Pinchas’ zealotry stopped the plague from spreading to the innocent. They would even go so far as to say that Pinchas aimed his spear so that it was clear exactly what part of the body was responsible for the sin. I’ll let you imagine for yourselves where that might be.
But more liberal interpreters, which I count myself among them, might wonder whether this punishment met the crime, and if Pinchas was truly within his rights to become judge, jury, and executioner. Unfortunately, it is often only in hindsight that we see how upholding the law can lead to obstruction of justice. The terseness of the text means that there is much that we do not know about the situation, I do not believe that we are informed enough to adjudicate the Israelites’ case. But I do know, that when the law is so strictly and quickly enforced, often we miss the most important details to humanize the guidelines by which we live.
Today, we have systems of checks, balances, and appeals written into our legal system to help ensure that our laws are just. But the imperfect nature of humanity can lead to imperfections in our systems. And all too often, we realize the injustices written into our laws before the laws and its system has righted itself. It then is left to us to speak truth to power, especially when that power upholds the systems of injustice to which we have become accustomed.
When Pinchas thrust his spear, he took away the opportunity for justice to win out over punishment, and for compassion to overturn zeal. He missed his opportunity to bear witness not only the law-breaking in front of him, but also the system that lead to its occurrence. Pinchas thought he saw what mattered, but in the end remained blind to the potential miracle inherent in all humanity but rarely used.
Prophesy and prophetic sight are not about seeing what’s in front of you. They’re about seeing the bigger picture – one in which we all, even God, play a role. Prophets are humans with divine connection – able to bring the will of God to the people, and also to bring the voice of the people to God. Prophets do not unquestioningly uphold systems, they ask the tough questions, and when the answers aren’t satisfactory, push those in power – human or divine – to do better.