Parshat Pinchas: Numbers 25:16-30:1; Jeremiah 1:1-2:3.
By Rabbi Brent Gutmann
This week’s Torah portion contains an especially challenging episode, one which produces a call to arms against the onset of an indecent and corrupt era.
The episode occurs when the Israelite soldiers consort with Midianite women and a plague breaks out. At the climax, the Midianite princess, Cozbi, and the Israelite soldier, Zimri, publicly go to copulate inside the tabernacle. Moses, our leader, hesitates, while Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, filled with vengeance, takes up his spear. He impales the couple in a single thrust, lifting the plague.
Pinchas’ act is gruesome, but one that also preserves sanctity. We are told in the opening verses of our portion that Pinchas is given a brit shalom, a “covenant of peace;” yet, there is something peculiar about this peace. The third Hebrew letter of the word shalom, the vav, is usually just a vertical line with a small dash on top; but here occurs a unique orthographic feature: The vertical line is broken into two parts, extending up and down with a gap in the middle (Numbers 25:12).
Why is this vav broken? Some teach this represents the fragility of a peace won through violence the PTSD trauma that haunts some soldiers following a bloody encounter. Yet others teach this vav serves a more mystical purpose, that we can unlock through digging into the origin of the vav itself.
Although their shapes have morphed over millennia, Hebrew letters were originally drawn and named to resemble objects, and the letter vav which means “hook” originally had a more hook-like shape. Today, a vav is drawn as a vertical line, a line that hooks the top and the bottom of the line together, a hook that joins heaven above to Earth below.
Clearly, the Torah is telling us something about the brokenness of that moment when Pinchas intervened. It teaches that sins perpetrated by those who do not share our values have a lasting effect that lingers even when the perpetrator has been vanquished.
Today, in the United States, our Jewish values are under assault. Regardless of your view on immigration, the conditions asylum seekers on our southern border are subjected to are reprehensible. Men are held in standing-room-only cells for more than a month without access to showers. Children are torn from their parents. And, although we can correct these injustices, further effort will be needed to repair the damage to our sense of decency.
It is our obligation as Jews and Americans to object to this self-inflicted humanitarian crisis being perpetrated, to take up Pinchas’ metaphorical spear without hesitation and say loudly and clearly, “These injustices do not represent us; neither are they values that our country or our people were built on. This is not normal.”
As Jews, we know what it means to be a persecuted minority. We know our obligation to love the stranger as ourselves for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. By our resolve, may we see that this plague is halted and the rupture between heaven and Earth is ultimately restored.
Rabbi Brent Gutmann is rabbi at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield.