Peace Through Peaceful Means: Parashat Pinchas

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by Rabbi Heather Miller

I don’t know if you know this about me, but in 2008, I studied for 6 months with a Jewish scribe known as a stam soferet.  This is a person who is qualified to write our most sacred texts: the Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzah– In fact, STAM stands for Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzah.

Soferet is the feminine of the word sofer—  as it was a woman scribe who taught me.  She was one of only seven women scribes at the time.  The two other students and I learned how to cut a quill– usually a goose feather, learn the properties of ink, and how to properly form letters.  There are laws– LOTS OF LAWS associated with writing proper letters.  For instance no two letters can touch because if they touch, you may think they were a different letter, and if that happened you may get the word wrong which may change the whole meaning of the verse which may change the whole meaning of the portion which may change the whole meaning of the Torah! That being said, we learned that there were a few irregularities in the text.  For instance, the word “Vayikra” is written with a small aleph, and there are some seemingly random nuns (the letter not the people) inserted in another portion.

Well, this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, features one such irregularity.  It is with a word that many of you are familiar with– that word is Shalom— which means peace.

Here is what the word looks like in this week’s Torah portion:

See how the vav (third letter from the right) is broken.  The ones who, in roughly the 9th century, codified how the letters were to be written and standardized consistency, known as the Masoretes, indicated that this particular word should be written in this particular way, in every kosher Torah that ever came into existence.

Why? The verse that this broken shalom appears in is a verse about a man named Pinchas– he was Moses’s brother Aaron’s, son Eleazar’s, son- Pinchas.  Essentially Moses’ great nephew.

The story with Pinchas, is that he was known to have zealously slayed an Israelite man, a prince in fact, of the tribe of Simeon, and a Midianite woman who had become intimate.  Essentially, he killed an intermarried couple.  And he did so violently, with a spear.  The rabbinic commentaries note that he even carried them out of their tent impaled upon his spear for all to see.  I told you he was zealous.

Rabbis in the rabbinic era glorify this act as a one of loyalty to God citing that this gruesome act was rewarded as right after this incident, God guarantees that Pinchas’ offspring will be the priests forevermore.  And, God also ceases a plague that God had, up until then, visited upon the entire Israelite community.

God tells Moses to reward Pinchas with a brit shalom— often translated as “a pact of friendship” but literally means a “covenant of peace.”

The rabbis of the Talmud note the two ways the word can be read either as Shalom peace or as Shalem complete.  You can hear the similarities of the “sh,” “l,” and “m” sounds.  Shalom.  Shalem.

In order to capture these two possibilities, the Masoretes decided to write the vav in, but broken.  So it can be read as a covenant of peace or a complete covenant.  But, does this sound like a true friendship– this friendship based on a killing?

The way I read it is as a (broken) covenant of peace and a (broken) and therefore incomplete covenant.  Because, can you really form a covenant of peace through a murder? Can you really give complete peace to the community through a a brazen act of violence?

I would like to read this text through the lens of the famous interpretation of the phrase and command “tzedek tzedek tirdof”-– “justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deut. 16:20)  The rabbis interpret the double use of the word justice to be an insistence that true justice is effected through just actions, rather than unjust actions.  Applied here, it means that true peace can only be effected by the means of peace (in this case, it would perhaps be effected by talking through the responsibilities to the community, accountability, and outlining the parameters personal free will and love) rather than through the violence that ensued.  Therefore the peace that was created was actually a broken peace.  Not a true peace.

This pact was formed based upon Pinchas’ hatred for an Israelite’s love for an idol worshipper and God’s similar hatred over idol worshippers. An “enemy of my enemy is my friend” situation. But we know that the enemy of my enemy is not my friend.  Or, stated simply, friendship is formed from common disdain, it can’t be a true friendship.  It is not a complete friendship as there is always dis-ease lurking.

So much of what I see in the news are politicians and others trying to achieve a noble goal, but doing so through unjust means.  Recently in the news, examples include through colluding with former enemy states even if doing so in the name of security, or mocking a politician’s looks even if what they’re doing to the country is unjust.  This is what I think of when I see this broken pact of friendship– this broken word of peace. The irony of the word “complete” being broken.

In our personal lives and throughout society, we must find ways to bring about true friendship through shared values, true justice through the means of justice, true peace through the means of peace, and true completeness through completely whole means.

One more thing I learned from the scribe I studied with: the Torah can never be written with a metal object.  This is because it is assumed that metal objects are used to make war.  And, so, one must never use an instrument of war even to write an instrument of peace.  This underscores the point that one must not achieve peace through means of violence and war.  The means are just as important as the ends.  May we all seek justice and pursue it, seek wholeness and pursue it, seek peace and pursue it, through just, complete and peaceful means.  And, then, may we truly enjoy a covenant of peace.

Amen!