May 27, 2022 |

Pinchas 5768: "The Blessings of Brokenness"

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The great Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once said that reading a translation is like kissing through a veil. The beginning of Parashat Pinchas illustrates this quite clearly. And not only does the biblical Hebrew lose its power refracted into the vernacular, but even if the Hebrew of a handheld Chumash is consulted, there is much missing which can only be experienced by direct contact with the Torah scroll itself.

First the language. We read (translate) the following:

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Phinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My Jealousy. Say, therefore, 'I grant him My 'Covenant of Shalom'. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he was jealous for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.' Numbers 25:10-13)"

The beginning of Parashat Pinchas recounts in only the vaguest of terms that which Pinchas actually did. He killed an Israelite who was publicly licentious with a Moabite woman. Pinchas struck them both through with a spear. This act, incredibly violent, is narrated in the conclusion of the previous Torah portion, separated from ours, perhaps in order to demonstrate an ancient discomfort connecting God's blessing to Pinchas' violence.

The word for God's "jealousy" is also curious, offered sometimes as "passion" or "zealousness." But the ugliness of jealousy captures the text's rawness better than those other terms, and still falls short. God is jealous, and Pinchas' act is connected to that angry, self-doubting emotion. Whenever Israel cheats on God, straying from theological monogamy, God gets jealous.

Indeed, it might be possible to read the text as suggesting that through Pinchas' ugly act, God learns. God's Jealousy is manifest on a human scale through Pinchas' violence. Perhaps the Covenant of Peace is one which God only recognizes as necessary when the raw divine emotion actualizes through Pinchas and wreaks havoc in the human sphere. It is as if God says to God's Self, "Gevalt. Look what jealousy, connected with Me, does on earth." Pinchas teaches God through demonstrating the wrong example, an imperfect response to personal pain. He certainly needs God's Covenant of Peace - as does God in moments of Divine Anger. It is just too easy to think small and foment pain in the world. If I feel threatened, my natural inclination is to lash out. Our vision of God, connected in its Essence to our self-understandings, makes this very clear. If God learns by observing violence in God's name, how can we not? Limited religious vision in our day and age results in violence. Wouldn't we accept the Covenant of Shalom if offered?

Now to the Biblical text itself. The traditional calligraphy of the Torah intentionally includes two oddities in the opening verses. The 'yud' in Pinchas' name is incredibly small, and the 'vav' of the word 'Shalom' is broken in half.

The small 'yud' is connected to tradition of biblical names which refer to God's own Name. Avram becomes 'Avraham', where the letter 'heh' is part of God's Mysterious Name, and Ya'akov becomes 'Yisrael', including the name 'El' from 'Elohim', another Name for God. Here, Pinchas' name includes a holy 'yud', but that visual connection to God's Name is reduced. Perhaps Pinchas' essential holy connection is reduced through the smallness of his act. Violence is effective and flashy, but not sustainable, not healthy - and not holy. Pinchas cares deeply about God but fails to be a partner in conversation, forgetting to mediate the intensity of Divine emotionality with the individuality of being an other to God's Self.

Rashi suggests that Pinchas wasn't officially a priest until this episode, and so we might imagine that Pinchas was jealous of the honorific, the respect, the public acknowledgment of being a servant for God in the world. And perhaps his violent act suggested to God the need for more structure, more rules. Being a priest included certain garb, certain rituals, certain decorum - all rationales for curbing the powerful emotional instability Pinchas (and others) demonstrate.

The broken 'vav' in the word 'Shalom' means that God's blessing to Pinchas is a Covenant of Broken Peace. When we believe we contribute to the world and that we are whole as we do so, we forget that the world which calls our attention so loudly needs the care of a similarly broken soul. As Parker Palmer suggests in A Hidden Wholeness (2004):

"Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness... need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life. (p.5)"

May we all be blessed by God's Shalom, the awareness that righteous indignation has its place but is deeply misplaced when manifested as an attack.

May we remember that our vulnerable selves are holy and that the wholeness we seek is sought too by the Holy One.



Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Joined: September 20, 2007

A prolific writer, musician, and teacher, Rabbi Menachem Creditor serves as rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA. Rabbi Creditor currently serves on the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Board of Trustees of the UC Berkeley Hillel, and on the Rabbinic Advisory...

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Rabbi Perry Netter

Joined: June 21, 2011

Rabbi Perry Netter is rabbi at Temple Beth Tzedek in Amherst (Buffalo) NY. He is the author of Divorce Is a Mitzvah and the father of five. All the rest is commentary.

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