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Pinchas - 5779

Dear Congregant,

As a result of the mixed blessing that is Facebook I have managed to stay abreast of numerous past acquaintances, some of them people I once knew well and others only more casually.  I hear of their career advances; their personal milestones; their vacations, recreational activities and chance encounters and, of course, in this politically charged era, I hear from many of them of their views on contemporary events.

Social media platforms encourage users to disseminate ideas spontaneously.  So, it is unsurprising that some of the views that get expressed are most charitably described as “unvarnished”.  I have nevertheless been taken aback by the vitriol with which individuals whom I knew as thoughtful, reasoned interlocutors light into persons with whom they disagree, employing derogatory comments, strong invectives, and sometimes even implied threats. 

Does the fact that a person holds a different view from my own on abortion, immigration or other “hot button” issues of our day really suggest that they should themselves be subjected to dehumanizing treatment or, in the case of those with differing views of Israel, that they should intentionally be placed in harm’s way?  This seems an abrogation of the very values that impel me to hold – and fight for – the views that I hold dear.

The Torah seems also to want us to wrestle with the question of what it means to hold and staunchly defend views in the face of ideas and conduct that are in strong conflict with our own.  This week’s portion (Parshat Pinchas) opens with the story of a religious zealot fatally impaling an Israelite man and Midianite woman flagrantly cohabiting (perhaps with ritual connotations) in the midst of the Israelite encampment. 

The text, superficially at least, defends the avenger’s actions(!), characterizing him as one who has acted zealously in defense of monotheism and its principles.  But the rabbis seem to be casting a not-so-subtle doubt on this assessment in their decision to split the action and its consequences between two adjacent portions (Balak and Pinchas), meaning that for generations readers have been forced to spend a week cogitating over the unresolved implications of this murderous assault before being granted a (textual) resolution.

Pages have been filled with commentary on this troubling incident, but I believe the most damning and convincing indictment of Pinchas (the attacker) is the critique that we shape, perhaps wordlessly, in our own hearts and minds as we sit in this space of indecision.  I would suggest that we might benefit from allowing ourselves a similar period of critical inquiry and distance before we next succumb to the temptation to post an impulsive response on social media.


-- Rabbi Rachel Safman

Mon, June 1 2020 9 Sivan 5780