The reading for this coming Shabbat says that Pinchas turned God’s anger away (Num. 26:11).
Why was God angry? The obvious reason is that the people of Israel were caught up in a difficult situation and might succumb to moral temptation. By stepping into the fray Pinchas he showed his zeal for the Almighty.
Rashi, however, offers an alternative point of view. He says that God was livid with the tribes of Israel who had spread rumours about Pinchas and criticised his genealogy, casting doubt on his lineage and saying that his grandfather had been an idol-worshipper.
Why did Rashi get involved in genealogy and ascribe the criticisms to the tribes in general and not to the tribe of Shimon whose prince, Zimri, had been killed by Pinchas? Zimri certainly deserved to be punished for openly consorting with Kozbi, a Midianite woman, in the Israelite camp.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe thinks the tribes were only trying to uphold the honour of Moses and Aaron and their attack on Pinchas was motivated by suspicion that there were inherited flaws in his character which led him to act rashly.
God would have preferred Pinchas to remember that he was a kohen and should not need special Divine help.
A MOUTH OF BRASS
Only five of the fifty-four sidrot (parshiyot) are named after people, beginning with Noach in the book of Genesis.
This current sidra is named after Pinchas, and we can use this as a convenient moment to speak about protesting. Indeed, one of the interpretations of the name Pinchas is "mouth of brass", suggesting that he is the forebear of those who mount protests.
The Jewish doctrine of protest can be summarised in these ten commandments:
1. Don’t remain silent. Even if you are not heard you have to give voice to your conscience.
2. Instead of ranting, use "a disciplined tongue" (Isaiah 50:4).
3. Rebuke out of love. The Torah says, "Do not hate your brother in your heart" (Lev. 19:17).
4. Don’t tell people what to think: give them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.
5. Avoid overkill, in words and actions.
6. Avoid violence: don’t hit people or destroy property, but persuade.
7. Stick to the real agenda - don’t wrap up the issue in extraneous considerations.
8. Don’t give up in the middle.
9. Don’t make your own side the enemy.
10. Don’t play God.
WHERE WAS MOSES?
The story of Pinchas centres upon a display of temper. Some people erupt all the time, others very rarely, and some hardly ever.
I knew a certain president who kept calm under the greatest provocation until one evening when a council member got under his skin and there was an explosion. Later I said to my friend, "That was rather unusual for you!", and he replied, "I had to react. I never lose my temper except on purpose!"
We understand what Pinchas did: as far as he was concerned, the whole moral teaching of the Torah was being challenged and someone had to step forward and act. But do we know why it was left to Pinchas to "avert the plague"? Where was Moses?
Rashi attempts to stand up for Moses by saying, "The halakhic ruling escaped his mind for the moment". In other words, Moses – despite being at least as shocked as Pinchas – was not sure of the right thing to do.
Yet Moses did have a temper as we see from his response when the people riled him beyond the point of endurance and he shouted at them and hit the rock to which he was supposed to speak quietly with the request that water be sent forth for the people (Num. 20:11).
So why did he not shout and lose his temper this time? Possibly he felt uneasy at having given way to anger on the occasion of the water incident and was now searching for a way of handling a crisis without losing his temper.
But with hindsight we might have to conclude that there is a time for a short fuse, and this was that kind of time. Pinchas may have been impulsive, but his was the better instinct.
THE RIVAL EMOTIONS
The Jewish calendar has two groups of dates that battle with one another for the soul of the Jew.
On the one hand there are the festivals, days of joy and happiness: on the other the fast days, which remind us of gloom and tragedy.
Amongst the fasts are four which mark the destruction of the Temple and seem to create a cycle of sadness. Chief amongst these four fasts is Tishah B’Av, but the fast of 17 Tammuz, three weeks earlier, is a prominent date in the cycle.
The rivalry between the feasts and the fasts is symbolised by two emotions – the lachrymose (the tearful) and the love and laughing.
The way Jewish history has played out we see a trail of tragedy and fear that more is to come; we see a series of simchas and hope there will be many more of them.
The Jewish spirit has, Baruch Hashem, made its choice, and we are an optimistic people who prefer dreams to nightmares.
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com