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Torah Commentary
Pinchas (July 12, 2014)

A Problem With Pinchas

Bettijane Eisenpreis

I HAVE A PROBLEM with the story of Pinchas (also spelled Phinehas, also spelled Pinhas) in Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-18). Actually, I have several problems. The first one is that the story of Pinchas isn’t in Parashat Pinchas; it’s in the last paragraph of the preceding parashahBalak. That last paragraph says that the Israelites were suffering from a plague that God inflicted on them because they had “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” (Numbers 25:1) God was extremely displeased and told Moses to have the ringleaders of the Israelites “publicly impaled before the Lord” and thus stop the plague that He had inflicted upon the people as punishment.

Before Moses could put the punishment in place, however, Pinchas, the grandson of Moses’ brother Aaron, saw an Israelite man taking a Moabite woman into his tent. He followed them and stabbed them both “through the belly,” thus ending the plague and Parashat Balak.

As Parashat Pinchas begins, the story of Pinchas wraps up in two quick paragraphs. God grants Pinchas his pact of friendship and says that he and his descendants will be priests for all time, “because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.”

Pardon me, God, Your Honor, but I’m confused. In Numbers 20:11-13, You told Moses to take his staff and touch the rock to give water to the people who were — big surprise — complaining. Instead, Moses lost his temper and struck the rock, and You punished him by not letting him into the Promised Land after 40 years of loyal leadership in the desert. I doubt if Moses hurt the rock. He certainly didn’t hurt the Israelites by giving them the water they were kvetching about. But You kept Moses from attaining his lifetime dream because he didn’t obey the letter of Your law. Wasn’t that a little harsh?

So did You tell Pinchas to stab these two people in the stomach and kill them? You weren’t even talking to Pinchas at the time. You were having a conversation with Moses, and up comes this hothead, this pipsqueak who takes the law into his own hands! Don’t You think he went a little bit overboard?

The authors of the Bible must have been almost as uncomfortable with this story as I was. First of all, the story of Pinchas isn’t even in the parashah that bears his name. Only the aftermath is discussed in Pinchas, and it is all finished by the time Chapter 26 begins. (Parashat Pinchas runs through the first verse of Chapter 30 and deals with other matters.) It must be one of those stories that came down from generation to generation, and someone felt he had to write it down. It was included because some editor, or redactor in biblical parlance, thought it should be included.

So there it is, and what should we — modern American Reform Jews — make of it? Given recent reports on the number of intermarriages in the Jewish community today, I strongly recommend that we not go around running spikes into the stomachs of Jews who intermarry…or even who date non-Jews. But I don’t recommend that we keep slaves or stone people to death for violating the Sabbath, and those things happen in the Bible, too.

At the excellent Torah study sessions conducted on Saturday mornings from September through May at Temple Emanu-El, we don’t just study the easy parts of the Torah. It is our people’s history, our mythology, our literature, our heritage, and we cherish all of it — even Pinchas. Pinchas was a zealot, and very few would recommend following his example in this day and age. But God liked him. God rewarded him. And that tells us something about God. God is mysterious, and we never will understand Him (or Her, however you wish to phrase it). I read the story of Pinchas, and I come back with my faith reinforced — my faith that, as a mere mortal, I never will understand God. But that doesn’t mean that I should ever stop trying.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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