My esteemed teacher in Jerusalem, Rabbi David Golinkin, shared these words this week, and I think they are important to share with you. He is discussing what happened after a horrific attack by Palestinian terrorists that murdered 4 Israelis last week. Large numbers of Israelis attacked neighboring Palestinian villages in response.
Since these events and after Rabbi Golinkin shared this message, an Israeli soldier was killed during an IDF operation to destroy a web of terrorist infrastructure in Jenin, a terrorist injured 7 people in a car-ramming attack in Tel Aviv, and a second Israeli soldier was killed (yesterday) in an attack on a patrol near the settlement of Kedumim.
As always, the weekly Torah portion offers deep insight and relevance to the events of our day. In this week’s parasha, the grandson of Aaron, Pinchas, is rewarded with God’s eternal ‘covenant of peace’ for having been ‘zealous for God’ in his actions, violent though they were (see the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, Numbers 25: 1-9).
Rabbi Golinkin is President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel.
Read Rabbi Golinkin’s comments below, or watch him present his statement here.
“Five years ago I made a video… about the weekly portion of Pinchas in which I asked: was Pinchas a person who was Zealous for God (a good guy), or was he a Zealot, (a bad guy)?
The Torah itself and the books of Psalms, Ezra, Ben Sira, the First Book of Maccabees, Josephus, Philo, and most of the Sages in rabbinic literature thought that Pinchas was a good guy.
The people were worshiping idols, a Jewish leader had sexual relations with a Midianite leader as part of their idol worship. God sent a plague. Pinchas saw that no one had the power to do anything about it. He killed the two leaders and the plague stopped immediately. God then praises Pinchas and gave him ברית שלום a Covenant of Peace and a ברית כהונת עולם a Covenant of the Priesthood forever.
In other words, in the opinion of the Torah and all of these commentators, Pinchas was Zealous for God but not a Zealot.
On June 20th, four innocent Israelis were killed by terrorists at the settlement of Eli. Our hearts go out to the families and to the families of a total of 20 Israelis murdered by terrorists in the first half of 2023.
We hope and pray that the IDF will capture every single terrorist.
Unfortunately, over the next few days after that attack, large numbers of settlers attacked quite a few Arab villages, especially Turmus Ayya where they burned at least 15 houses, 20 cars and many fields.
If you ask them, they would probably tell you that they are Zealous like Pinchas. I would like to explain why this is totally false: They are not Zealous, they are Zealots.
Pinchas killed two specific people in order to stop a plague. The settlers who attacked many Arab villages and burned many houses, cars and fields transgressed at least four basic Jewish principles or mitzvot.
The first is found in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 3:14 in the mouth of Rabbi Akiva:
הוא היה אומר: חביב אדם שנברא בצלם, חיבה יתרה נודעת לו שנברא בצלם, שנאמר “כי בצלם אלהים ברא את אדם.” (בראשית ט׳:ו׳)
He used to say: Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of God. As a gesture of special love, it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God, as it is written: “For in the image of God he made MAN” (Genesis 9:6).
It does not say “Jews” or “Israelites”; it says “man”. ALL human beings are made in the image of God, not just Jews. It is totally immoral to attack innocent men, women, and children, regardless of their religion.
The second principle or mitzvah which they transgressed was חילול השם, the desecration of God’s name.
We read in Vayikra (Leviticus) 22:32
וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קׇדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃
“You shall not desecrate My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I am the Lord who sanctified you.”
The Sages learned from this verse two mitzvot: קידוש השם ‘to sanctify God’s name’ and not to do חילול השם ‘not to desecrate God’s name’.
This type of senseless violence desecrates God’s name in the eyes of the world.
The third principle is found in the famous story of Hillel and the convert who wanted to learn the entire Torah while standing on one foot (Shabbat 31a).
Hillel says to him:
.אָמַר לוֹ: דַּעֲלָךְ סְנֵי לְחַבְרָךְ לָא תַּעֲבֵיד — זוֹ הִיא כׇּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ, וְאִידַּךְ פֵּירוּשַׁא הוּא, זִיל גְּמוֹר
“He said to him: what is hateful to you do not do unto others. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn.”
For 1,900 hundred years, Jews were persecuted by non-Jews. Pogroms, blood-libels, expulsions. Now that we have our own sovereign state, and we are the majority, God forbid that we should persecute minorities or carry out pogroms.
What is hateful unto us, we should not do to others.
Finally, there is the subject in Judaism of נקמה or vengeance.
The word נקמה appears 44 times in the Bible. In most of those verses, it says that God will take vengeance on evildoers or on evil nations.
As for human beings, it says in Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:18:
לֹֽא־תִקֹּ֤ם וְלֹֽא־תִטֹּר֙ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י עַמֶּ֔ךָ׃
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your people.”
And if you say that this only applies to Jews, then listen to this verse from Proverbs (Mishle) 24:29
אַל־תֹּאמַ֗ר כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָֽשָׂה־לִ֭י כֵּ֤ן אֶעֱשֶׂה־לּ֑וֹ אָשִׁ֖יב לָאִ֣ישׁ כְּפׇעֳלֽוֹ׃
“Do not say I will do to him what he did to me, I will pay the man what he deserves.”
Now this verse is part of the Wisdom Literature. The Wisdom Literature does not just address Jews, the Wisdom Literature in the Bible addresses ALL human beings.
Finally, we have the saying of Rav Pappa found in tractate Sanhedrin, folio 102b. He loved Aramaic folk sayings:
היינו דאמרי אינשי: דפרע קיניה מחריב ביתיה
“He who takes revenge destroys his own house.”
The settlers who rampaged through Arab villages and burned houses, and cars, and fields are not zealous for God like Pinchas. They are zealots who desecrate God’s name.
The State of Israel and the IDF must do everything possible to prevent this type of behavior. So that one day we will have, like Pinchas, ברית שלום a Covenant of Peace.”
Rabbi Michael Schwartz