Today’s Torah portion is only one of 6 named after a person—in this case, Pinchas. What Pinchas do to merit such an honor? Also, the parsha opens with Pinchas being offered a Brit Shalom, a special covenant of peace—offered to no one else in the whole Bible. Why was Pinchas so special? It appears to many of the classical commentaries that while Gd gave him this reward because he deserved it, nevertheless Gd wasn’t all that comfortable in doing so. How do I know? If you look at the word Shalom from Brit Shalom in the Torah, it has a broken letter—the vav. Any other place in the Torah, a broken letter renders the Torah pasul—not fit for use. But here the broken letter is intentional. And in giving us this broken letter tradition, Gd, I think, was teaching us a lesson that he was not all that excited about what Pinchas had done. And the naming of the parsha after Pinchas confirms this lesson.
What’s the lesson? Last week’s parsha ended with the story of how Pinchas saw an act of flagrant immorality and idolatry taking place. He saw Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Simon, participating in a pagan orgy in the sight of all Israel in defiance of Moses’ leadership and God’s commandments. Pinchas became so incensed, so infuriated, that, without waiting for permission from Moses or the elders or anyone else, he seized a sword and killed both of them—Zimri and the pagan temptress Cozbi.
There are at least 3 explanations of what this Brit Shalom, this covenant of peace means, and each one gives us a whole different perspective in which to understand the behavior of Pinchas. The 1st says that Pinchas needed peace—in the sense of protection. He needed divine protection from the relatives of Zimri, for they were angry and wanted to get him for what he did to their kinsman. In ancient times, if you killed one’s relative, the rest of the clan felt duty-bound to come after you. And so Gd had to promise Pinchas protection from the anger of the family of the man he had killed.
That is the commentaries’ of saying that violence does not ever really solve anything. It only leads to counter-violence, which leads to counter-counter violence in a never ending cycle. As Hillel said, when he saw a body floating in the river (Ethics of the Fathers 2:7): “Because you drowned others you were drowned, and the one who killed you will be drowned in turn.” Violence only leads to more violence and so Gd had to intervene and protect Pinchas from the consequences of what he did.
The 2nd explanation that is found in the commentaries is that Gd had to promise Pinchas protection—not from the clan of the man whom he killed—but from Moses and the courts. They were upset with him for having taken the law into his own hands. They wanted to put him on trial for murder or, excommunicate him or at least take away the priesthood from him, and so Gd intervened to protect Pinchas from the authorities. That is the commentaries’ way of saying that no government can tolerate people taking the law into their own hands.
But to me, the 3rd explanation is the most compelling. It comes from the Netziv, Rabbi Neftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin who died in 1893, in his book, Ha-eymek Davar. He says that Gd had to bless Pinchas with the covenant of peace to protect him from himself. For when a man kills, whether with premeditation or on the spur of the moment, whether it be in anger or to defend himself, he is never the same again. There is the possibility that once he has killed, he may become hardened and callous.
Or there is the possibility that he may become so demoralized by the experience, he may become so guilt-ridden, so full of remorse and unease because of what he has done, that it may drive him mad—like those who flew the Bombers that dropped the Atom Bombs on Japan in 1945. Therefore, Gd promised him a Brit Shalom, that he would have peace within himself—that Gd would help him recover from the trauma and from the danger to his soul that the murder of another human being had caused.
That, for me, is the most compelling explanation because it reflects the horror of violence and the understanding of the inner damage that violence causes that is so basic to Jewish thinking. What the Netziv is saying is that in addition to the harm that an act of violence does to its victim and society, we must also consider the inner-harm that an act of violence does to the one who performs it. It makes that person less human, less stable, less civilized.
When you count up the casualties in a war, in addition to the “body count,” we need to make a measure of the more intangible costs of war—the “soul count” if you will. For no soldier who has killed is ever quite the same again. No soldier who has to blow up the homes of civilians, no pilot who has to bomb cities, no policeman who has to cope with and control children who throw rocks, can survive the experience without some spiritual damage. Many soldiers come back from the wars inwardly damaged, addicted to drugs, unable to sleep, torn apart by conscience, in need of a Brit Shalom, Gd’s covenant of inner peace, Gd’s help in healing from the wounds of war. That’s why Golda Meir said, “We hold the Arabs accountable, not for killing our sons, but for making our sons kill theirs.”
Since 9/11/2001, America has been engaged in very difficult wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya and elsewhere. I’m not going to express an opinion on whether these wars are justified or not. But this I do know: By now, hundreds of thousands of these young American soldiers have come back from these wars broken in body and spirit. Many of them suffer from what they now call “Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome,” which is a fancy name for the kind of unrest that Pinchas suffered from, according to the Netziv. Some of them live on the streets; some of them are unable to hold a job. Some of them have committed suicide because they’re unable to heal from the experience of being wounded, or from the experience of wounding and killing others. Some of them have become sick in soul, if not in body.
And, if I understand the words of the Netziv correctly, it is our solemn duty to do for these physically and spiritually wounded of our time what Gd did for Pinchas: namely to help them achieve the measure of inner peace that they surely deserve. I know that our country is in a serious economic crisis and there’s a limit to what we can afford to do, but from reports in the media this week about the need to improve care for veterans with PTSD, and from conditions I have observed in Veterans Administration Hospitals, we aren’t doing nearly enough. In Israel the wounded are given the finest of the finest treatment and when they come home, the whole community pitches in to help. We need to do at least the same.
May Gd keep our soldiers safe and return them alive and whole to their families. And when they return and they are not whole, may we step up and be there for them. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis