History continues to require ‘recalibration’

Rabbi Dale Schreiber

By Rabbi Dale Schreiber

This commentary is dedicated to Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – now of blessed memory. He was laid to rest   July 4, 2014. His approach to Judaism ignited and reignited a passion for deep exploration of our sources and traditions. He modeled a spiritually responsive Judaism that attracted thousands from every denomination and influenced hundreds of thousands through his vision of Jewish Renewal.  I was and will continue to be one of his talmidim, his students. 

We live in a time of disenchantment.  I began writing this commentary with thoughts about the juxtaposition of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, and shortly thereafter of a young Palestinian, with this week’s portion,  Pinchas from the book of Numbers.  

It was a grief-filled reminder that the excess of violent action always leads to a reaction.  Their names were recorded in headlines: Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Mohammad Abu Khdeir.  The news was filled with promises of retaliation, revenge and, as unlikely as it seems, messages from Israel that we continue to teach the Torah of shalom, of peace, even as we process the tragedies.  

Numbers is named for the many head counts that occur in this fourth book of Torah.  It has a Hebrew name, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.”  The rabbis referred to it as the Book of Levites.  This year, I refer to it as the Book of Upsets.  

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No one is exempt.  

Week by week, the Torah records the emotional wilderness of fear, despair and violence in an unsettled people.  It is one long complaint:  the people about the leadership, the leadership about the burdens, and the political contenders about their stature. Even God appears reactive and tired of trying to meet needs that can never be satisfied. An entire generation of former slaves has passed on, ostensibly for failures to serve in prescribed ways.  A new, untested and unyoked generation has been birthed and inscribed into the service of God and covenant.  They have spent close to 40 years downloading, as Reb Zalman would say, the rules for Jewish engagement.

Our story tells us that Pinchas is a Levite who, in an act of zealotry, kills an Israelite man and a Midianite woman.  His ardor is rewarded with a special elevation in status to the Kohanim (priestly status) and with an eternal covenant of peace.  This represents a reversal of expectations. The reality Torah describes up until now is one of crime and punishment.  A human action that violates a precept is punished.  Torah labels this Divine Justice.  Torah speaks about a Divinely jealous nature.  The word for zealot in Hebrew evokes a sense of jealousy, compulsivity and reactivity.  Pinchas served as an extension of God’s emotion when he acted out God’s jealous passion for an Israelite identity that would stand apart from the numerous deities and cultic practices of its own time. 

Reb Zalman is quoted as saying, “Behind all religions, there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”  I believe Pinchas acted on his reality.   He could trust in the retribution God demanded when Israel strayed from a covenant that has the integrity of a marriage contract.  We renew the contract daily with the words “and you shall love YHVH with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your – strength.”  Pinchas acted through this understanding and, perhaps, the rewards cited in the text are for the spontaneous proof of devotion.  

Reb Zalman loved the word “recalibrate.” Pinchas provided an opportunity for the Israelites to recalibrate around a reality that insisted on growing a strong religious and cultural identity.  The spontaneous and egregious mad-moment defined a national need for settled boundaries.   

Jewish history has required recalibration after many critical and unsettling events.  The legacy of Pinchas is not in his violent reaction, but in the long, serious commentaries since then that focus on the vision required to resettle ourselves in the more persistent Torah of peace.  

May the memories of all good people continue to bless our days as we, their inheritors, strive to build a lasting covenant of peace for all humankind. 

Rabbi Dale Schreiber recently accepted a position with Pathways Jewish Hospice and is director of Renewal in Action.