Reedeming Pinchas: Repairing the Irreparable

“Phineas Slayeth the Celebrants” (Avi Katz)

Here’s the story of Pinchas, title character of this week’s Torah portion:

While sojourning in Shittim, the Israelites profane themselves by consorting with Moabite women who invite them to make sacrifices to their god. Incensed, God orders Moses to have all the ringleaders impaled – but just as Moses issues the order, an Israelite chieftain and a Midianite princess cohabit in full view of the Israelite community.

In response, Pinchas, (the grandson of Aaron the High Priest) steps forward and stabs both of them through the belly, thus saving the Israelites from a plague (which had resulted, presumably, from God’s wrath.)  God extols Pinchas for his zealousness and grants him and his descendants a “covenant of peace” (brit shalom) – a pact of priesthood for all time.

Horrified? I don’t blame you. There’s no use sugar coating it: this week’s Torah portion sanctions xenophobia, intolerance, and murderous religious zealotry.

Still, over the centuries, some commentators have had a field day with Parashat Pinchas, attempting to somehow redeem the inherent nastiness of the story. According to the Talmud, for instance, if Pinchas had asked the rabbinical court to legally sanction his killing, the court would have responded, (in true Talmudic fashion), “the law may permit it, but we do not follow that law!” (BT Sanhedrin 82a)  The Chatam Sofer (Hungary, 19th c.) views God’s pact of priesthood with Pinchas less as a reward for his zealousness than as a corrective to it: “(Pinchas) will have to cure himself of his violent temper if he is to function as a priest.” (Eytz Hayyim, p. 918)  In a contemporary reading of the portion, Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that Pinchas’ extreme actions shocks God into an act of teshuvah (repentance), causing God to end the deadly plague and pursue a covenant of peace.

While I’m taken by the exegetical brilliance of some of these interpretations, I confess that none of them really solve the essential problem for me. At the end of the day, I’m not sure that any interpretation, no matter how intellectually dazzling, can compete with the raw, literal power of a story that promotes murderous zealotry in God’s name. Or to put it in neurological terms: I’m not sure that the intellectual, left brain approach to Pinchas can ever truly redeem what is essentially a visceral, lizard-brain story. On the contrary, when we try too hard to explain away the more disturbing elements of Torah, we sometimes end up doing the exact opposite: words upon words of interpretation often merely shine a light on these troubling elements all the more.

In contrast to the countless pages of commentary generated by this story, the most redemptive interpretation I know actually comes in the form of one tiny letter. In the Masoretic text of the Torah scroll, the word “Shalom” in the term “brit shalom” is written with a broken letter vav. (Vav, of course, is also one of the letters in God’s name, YHVH.)

For me, at least, this still, small suggestion of irreparable brokenness says more than a thousand words of commentary. In one short pen stroke, the message is driven home: this broken “covenant of peace” is no peace at all. This broken God that requires murderous zealotry of humanity is no God at all. No rationalizing, no explaining away can truly repair the essential brokenness of this story.

Yes, perhaps this one letter is all the interpretation we need: certain stories, certain ideas, certain acts are simply too broken to be redeemed. And all the rest, as they say, is commentary…