Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pinhas

What is the worst sin?  According to the Bible and Talmud it is the sin of idolatry.  Why?  If you start bowing down to idols you will end up attaching too much importance to things rather than family, friends and people.  Such is the logic behind the story of Pinhas.

The Torah relates the following story.  The people are gathered on the banks of the Jordan river, poised to enter the land of Israel.  They have become intoxicated with the religion of the Midianites, sacrificing to their god, Baal-Peor.  They participate in its orgiastic festivals.  Moses tries to get them to stop, issuing laws forbidding such foreign practices, but the people refuse to listen.  God becomes enraged.  "Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions...  When Pinhas saw this he left the assembly and taking a spear in his hand he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly." (Numbers 25)

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Pinhas has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I do not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion."  (Numbers 25)  Pinhas's passion quells God's passion.  Pinhas renews the covenant between God and the people.  The lesson is clear: idolatry is a dangerous thing and must be prevented at all costs.  Pinhas takes matters into his own hands in order to stamp out this danger.  If not for Pinhas taking his spear in his hand the people would not merit entering the land. In the Bible's estimation idolatry defiles the land as well as the people.

This exemplifies the approach to idolatry found in the Bible.  If nothing else works, smash the idols and kill the idolaters!  The rabbinic approach on the other hand, is thankfully less violent, but nonetheless equally zealous.  The rabbis forbid the food and wine of idolaters.  They forbid their bathhouses and temples.  While they share the ideology of the Bible they refuse to condone its methodology.  The Talmud states: "The deed of Pinhas was not approved of by Moses, nor by the elders.  Rabbi Elazar added: 'If not for God, Pinhas would have been excommunicated!'  As Rabbi Hisda taught: 'If the zealot comes to seek counsel, we are never to instruct him to act.'" (Sanhedrin 81b)

Often the rabbis suggest an alternative approach in their Haftarah selection.  The reading from the prophets is occasionally used as a counterweight to the Torah reading.  The Haftarah assigned to Pinhas is about Elijah.  (For those synagogues who observe the Three Weeks the Haftarah shifts to Jeremiah and does not coincide with the Torah reading.)  The prophet Elijah, like Pinhas, has a violent temper and deals with non-believers with a similar heavy hand.  He kills hundreds of idolaters and worshipers of Baal.  But this story concludes with a beautiful estimation of where we might find God.  It is not in a thunderous voice (and actions) but in the still, small voice. "There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind...  After the earthquake--fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a soft murmuring sound."  (I Kings 19)

The rabbis therefore offer an antidote to Pinhas's actions.  They suggest by this Haftarah selection that God is found in the small details, in those difficult to discern. They suggest that we must strain to find God's voice.  It is not found in violence or even lofty pronouncements  The rabbis take full advantage of the many voices found in the Bible.  Taken together the Torah and Haftarah argue against each other.  This week the rabbis suggest that God does not want us to take our spears in hand and violently overthrow idolatry.  They urge us instead to do so in our hearts. 

That is the lesson in reading Elijah with Pinhas.  That is the purpose of reading the Haftarah with the Torah.

No comments: