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TorahParshat Pinchas | Numbers 25:10-30:1

Watching your volume

There will always be noise in the system. When we learn to speak in the right voice at the right volume with the right words, we will take steps toward real and lasting peace.

Rabbi Sharyn Henry
(File photo)
(File photo)

There are a lot of voices to be heard in this week’s Torah and Haftarah portions. Some of these voices are loud, some are very soft and some are “just right.”

Let’s start with the loud. We need to rewind a bit to the end of last week’s Torah portion in which Pinchas, the zealous priest, grandson of Aaron and great-nephew of Moses, witnessed Zimri, a Jewish leader, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess, engage in a public display of immorality and idolatry. Frustrated by Moses’ hesitation in responding to what Pinchas believed would destroy the Israelite people, Pinchas took matters into his own hands, grabbed a spear…and impaled the two of them.

This week we pick up the story with God establishing a covenant of peace and a covenant of everlasting priesthood. While we understand that Pinchas was rightly distressed by Zimri and Cozbi’s overt and chutzpadik display of idolatry, it is important to note Jewish commentators have long been troubled by Pinchas’ actions, as well as the suggestion that he seems to be rewarded by God for his zealousness. Many have suggested that God’s offer of a “pact of peace” (brit shalom) should not be regarded so much as Pinchas’ reward, but rather as a covenant that will require responsibility and moderation on the part of this future Israelite leader.

One of the most powerful commentaries on Pinchas’ act is written into the very fabric of Torah itself. The Masoretes — the 8th and 9th century rabbinic sages who codified the written Torah into the version we know today — instructed that the word shalom in the term brit shalom should be written with a broken letter vav. As a result, every Torah scroll now bears this inner message: Peace achieved through zealotry and violence is an incomplete peace, a “broken peace,” as it were.

The soft voice is God’s. In the Haftarah portion, a desperate Elijah runs for his life from the murderous designs of Queen Jezebel and seeks to find the presence of God. Here’s the beautiful and moving passage that describes Elijah’s encounter with God:

“Then the word of the Lord came to him: ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’ He replied, ‘I am moved by the zeal for the Lord, God of Hosts.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire — kol d’mamah dakah — a still, small voice” (I Kings 19:9-12).

In poignant contrast to the episode in Numbers involving Pinchas, the Haftarah teaches that truth doesn’t need to be shouted. Kol d’mamah dakah: truth and justice, and God, can often be found in quiet and stillness, and in small voices.

Finally, we arrive at the “just right” voice of the daughters of Zelophehad, five women who step forward, state their case and ultimately change Israelite law.

As the tribes are being counted — their strength and size enumerated so that parcels of the Promised Land can be apportioned accordingly — we are told in Numbers, Chapter 27: “The daughters of Zelophehad, of the tribe of Manasheh…came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah and Tirtzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, ‘Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korach’s faction, which banded together against God, but rather he died for his own sin; and he has left no sons. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son. Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.’”

When Moses brings their case before God, God responds: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just. You should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen.”

There will always be noise in the system. When we learn to speak in the right voice, at the right volume, with the right words and for just causes — then we will take steps to fixing that broken vav in the word shalom — and we will take steps toward real and whole and lasting peace. PJC

Rabbi Sharyn Henry is rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinical Association.

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