When passion turns to extremism

Rabbi James Bennett serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.

By Rabbi James Bennett

When does passion turn to extremism? Sometimes it catches us by surprise. 

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, plays out this drama before our eyes. The narrative and poetry weave the tale of Balaam, a foreign prophet hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites in preparation for the war Balakk seeks to fight with them to contain their growing numbers. 

Balaam encounters an angel of God along the way, invisible at first to him but seen by his donkey, with whom he speaks and from whom he learns. The drama peaks when Balaam, thinking he would fulfill his mission and curse the Israelites, finds himself unable to do so. He instead utters the famous words of blessing, “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notechah Yisrael,” – “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5). Balaam reports back to a frustrated King Balak, having learned to bless the Other rather than to curse.

Yet the story of this Torah portion does not end there. The narrative suddenly turns to a disturbing postscript, the tale of Pinchas, the grandson of the high priest Aaron and clearly an Israelite zealot, someone whom today we might call a religious extremist. 

Pinchas witnesses an Israelite man engaging in a forbidden relationship with a Midianite woman and, in his passionate desire to protect the integrity of his people and in his understanding of God’s will, stabs the man and the woman to death. 

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This shocking turn of events leaves us stunned. From a fantasy tale of talking animals and angels seen and unseen, and curses transformed into blessings, we are suddenly confronted with the worst outcome of human passion: the belief that one person has the right to take the life of another because of faith or ideology.

Sadly, it is the very tale that seems to play out before us daily across the globe. When ideology and faith become the justification for acts of terror, murder and war, we face the consequences of unfettered extremism. That the Torah seems almost to justify Pinchas’ act of terror is even more disturbing, because some might read his act as the will of God.

I choose to read this story differently. We have a choice. It is no accident that the child’s tale of Balak and Balaam is juxtaposed with the horror story of Pinchas. The Torah starkly shows us the choice we all have. 

We can easily descend into the depths of religious or ideological extremism that leads to terror. We can allow the events around us to rob us of our ethical sensibility and our values. We can let fear, racism and self-preservation transform us into inhuman beings willing to justify violence, easy access to weapons and death, the natural consequence of this transformation.  

Or we can open our eyes to the voice of holiness, see the messenger of God before us, and choose life and blessing.

Who will we be, Balaam or Pinchas?  The choice is ours.