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Parshat Pinchas

07/22/2022 02:06:40 PM

Jul22

Rabbi Hearshen

It’s imperative that each of us struggle with the Torah. We each need to take notice of the items that make us squirm and feel uncomfortable. Ultimately, we need to simply accept that discomfort, and at other times we need to accept that this discomfort is something that pushes us to look at parts of the Torah in radically new ways. Take this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. In order to better understand the opening words of the Torah portion, we need to look back at last week’s portion and the ending. Parshat Balak ended with an episode where a group of men were seduced by women from another nation, Moab. This was wicked in the eyes of the community and in the eyes of God. It ended when one Israelite man and one Moabite woman went into a tent and were followed by Pinchas who killed them both. This week’s portion, Pinchas, begins with God making a covenant of peace with Pinchas. At first glance, it could be seen as a reward for Pinchas’ vigilante justice. At second glance, one should ask why the covenant being given to a man who demonstrated such violence is a covenant of peace. Is religious fanaticism something to be proud of or something to be afraid?

When the Taliban destroyed the statues of Buddha of Bamiyan, we were horrified and thought such things could never happen in the modern world. We have been horrified as ISIS destroyed ancient and sacred religious articles in areas of Iraq and in Syria. All of these are awful and all of them are acts of religious fanatics and zealots. When Baruch Goldstein murdered Muslims at prayer in Hebron, he did so claiming religious rationale. When Yigal Amir murdered PM Yitzhak Rabin, the same ugly religious explanation was given. Each of these examples is extreme and something all people of conscience can agree are wrong. At the same time, we need to recognize not all acts of zealotry are on such a big scale. We need to see religious violence is bad in all shapes and sizes.

The Western Wall in Israel recently became a site of disharmony and ugliness rather than unity and beauty. American Jewish boys and girls had traveled to Israel to celebrate becoming bar/bat mitzvahs. They went to the egalitarian area of the Western Wall to read Torah and participate in services. While they were there, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews came to disrupt and intimidate those in attendance. They tore up siddurim and called the worshippers Nazis while also blowing whistles and doing all they could to interrupt the services. This wasn’t the first time such a thing happened. The Western Wall, the birthright of all Jews, has seen far too many episodes of hostility. The Western Wall has witnessed far too much violence and it
must stop.

It’s important to point out the Western Wall many of us have visited is funded by the Israeli government. The government oversees the security of the wall and its visitors. It ensures there are Sifrei Torah scrolls, prayer books, kippot and everything else needed for prayer. The entity in charge of the wall is called The Western Wall Heritage Foundation and operates under the auspices of the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. All prayer conducted at the Western Wall is required to be Orthodox. There is no middle ground and no allowance made for anyone at the Western Wall. A bit down the wall is Robinson’s Arch, where egalitarian and non-Orthodox prayer is allowed. This is not funded by the State and is not governed by one singular body. It does not have Sifrei Torah scrolls nor does it have prayer books. It exists for those of us who want to pray in a manner outside of the Orthodox one of the Western Wall.

In the eyes of the zealot, the world must look like what they want it to look like. In the eyes of the fanatic, the world is only large enough for those who think and behave alike. In the eyes of the extremist, everyone must pray and observe in the same fashion. But that’s not the way we as Jews are intended to behave or think. We’re called upon to see multiple faces to the Torah. We’re called upon to see disputes as sacred and not as weak. We’re called upon to acknowledge there are multiple ways to see the world. So to return to Pinchas, how do we live with his “reward” being a “covenant of peace?” It was given to Pinchas because when a person is filled with rage and anger at others, they’re unable to feel whole and complete and God wanted to diminish the rage within Pinchas.

We need to find a way to see that differences of practice and philosophy don’t weaken us, but rather they build us up. We need to find a way to see that when we’re unified in our diversity, we’re so much stronger. As we complete the first of the three weeks that commemorate the tragedy of the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, we would do well to remember the Temples were destroyed because of baseless hatred and our inability to care enough about each other. As a world Jewish community, we must demand more and better from ourselves. We must look for a path forward that brings us together and honors our differences.

Thu, August 11 2022 14 Av 5782