Pinchas, 11 July 2009
The challenge to channel

Today’s portion, Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) teaches us to channel our zealotry.

Camped at Shittim, the Israelite men go whoring with Midianite women. The Midianite women entice them to worship Baal Peor.

God tells Moses to have the ring leaders impaled. Moses so instructs the people. A plague breaks out, eventually killing 24,000 Israelites. In the presence of the congregation, Zimri, an Israelite man takes Cozbi, a Midianite woman, to the Entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Suddenly, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and plunges it through their bellies. The plague ceases..

God rewards Pinchas with a Covenant of Peace, establishing a hereditary priesthood through Pinchas.

Rabbi Laura Geller
of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a Reform synagogue, explains that the Talmud makes clear that Pinchas should not be a role model for anyone. Pinchas ignored legal process. He did not warn the couple that their behavior would result in death. He was witness, judge and executioner.

Rabbi Geller notes that had Zimri killed Pinchas first, it would have been self-defense. Had Pinchas killed the couple at anytime other than the moment of actual intercourse, it would have been murder.

A refreshing and surprising view is offered by
Rabbi Elyse Frishman, editor of the Reform siddur Mishkan T’filah, and rabbi at The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey.

Rabbi Frishman defends the zealotry of Pinchas. Not only did Pinchas act in defense of God, he acted to save lives. With a thrust of the spear, Pinchas ended the plague which had claimed 24,000 people. Pinchas purged Israel of the guilt of whoring with the Midianite women. Pinchas purged Israel of the guilt of worshipping Baal Peor.

I reject Rabbi Frishman’s view.

Zealotry is self-destructive.

One of the offshoots of the activism of the 1960’s was the Weather Underground. This group was insane with zealotry.

On October 20, 1981 members of the Weather Underground attempted to rob a Brinks’ armored truck outside a bank near Nyack, New York. A security guard and two police officers were killed. Nine children were made fatherless. Dr. Alan Berkman was suspected of treating one of the robbers for a gunshot wound. Dr. Berkman became a fugitive.

Later he was involved in the armed robbery of a supermarket in Connecticut. On May 23, 1985, he was arrested near Doylestown, Pennsylvania. On his person were a pistol, a shotgun and keys to a garage. The garage contained 100 pounds of dynamite. Dr. Berkman served eight years in prison.

After his release, he became active in AIDS issues. He founded Health GAP, a world-wide project to provide AIDS medicine to the poor. He died June 5 at the age of 63.

obituary in the New York Times quoted an interview with Dr. Berkman made in 1994. At that time Dr. Berkman was on parole. He was working at a drug treatment clinic in the South Bronx.

Asked how someone so committed to saving lives could have joined groups that were willing to plant bombs, Dr. Berkman replied:

“I had seen pain in the communities I worked in,” and “an increasing indifference” to that pain.

“We became desperate and kept going further out on the limb.”

“There is plenty to learn from all the mistakes we made. Power is corrupting.
And the use of violence is a form of power. People motivated to stop the suffering of others have to be careful not to be caught up in the same dynamics.”

One of the defendants in the Brinks robbery of 1981 was Judith Clark, who drove a get-away car.

Harriet Clark is the daughter of Judith Clark and Dr. Alan Berkman. Commenting on her father’s obituary, Harriet Clark wrote a
letter to the New York Times. The letter was published on June 26. She wrote:

“My father’s lifelong commitment to social justice --- a commitment that turned to extremism and violence, but that also guided him after his release from prison to build a meaningful and productive life. This is in many ways the story of both of my parents.

"My mother, Judy Clark, was also an activist in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. She, too, turned to violence and extremism, culminating in her role as a getaway car driver in a robbery that took the lives of three men. Her sense of remorse and regret and her deep belief in repair have guided her as she, too, has built a committed and productive life --- piloting a program for inmates with AIDS, working in the prison’s college program, counseling mothers in the nursery, and through it all raising me.

"My mother has served 28 years out of a 75-to-life sentence and will not be eligible for parole for another 47 years. My father’s life demonstrated the contributions people can make when given the chance. My mother’s life demonstrates this as well, and her contributions would be even greater if she could come home.”

Many of us have the zealot within us---the inner Pinchas. How should we handle it?

Rabbi Shefa Gold
writes, “The zealot is the one who acts fearlessly, without hesitation, without stopping to ask permission. He translates the yearnings and guidance of the heart into bold decisive action. When the zealot inside us is not honored, [and not] given a place of respect within us; we fall into complacency, ambivalence or paralysis.

"We become the woman of the Song of Songs who hears her beloved knocking and hesitates, saying 'I have taken off my clothes, how can I dress again? I have bathed my feet, must I dirty them.' [Song of Songs 5:3] When finally she answers the door, he is gone. Our hesitation results in the tragic loss of the opportunity to meet Life, face to face, right now!”

Rabbi Shefa Gold concludes, “When we surround that force [of zealotry] with values of compassion, mercy, tolerance and understanding, then the power of zealotry confers vitality and clarity upon those that experience it.”