BS”D By Dvir Cahana featuring Rabbi Moshe Cahana July 10, 2020
Phinehas, the eponymous character of this week’s Torah reading is a provocative figure that demands the attention of rabbinic interpreters. When the nation falls prey to false prayers and licentiousness, G-d unleashes a plague, killing 24,000 people in its wake. Moses calls upon the police force to judge those who are engaging in idol worship. Phinehas, unable to stand idle, takes it upon himself, to quite literally, spearhead an initiative to murder two public figures acting promiscuously (but explicitly not engaging in idol worship) to use as an example, and thrusts a spear through both of their stomachs. The Torah notes that it is because of Phinehas’ zealousness, that the plague is lifted. What an unsettling story. What does the Torah want us to make of it? As readers, we are left wondering if Phinehas should be regarded as a valorous hero, or whether we should be horrified by his capacity to murder in such a gruesome way? It seems like the Torah lauds Phinehas for returning G-d’s anger back up to heaven and blesses him when it reminds us that his family will be eternally blessed as Priests with peace.
But there is another way to read G-d’s reaction to Phinehas’ behaviour. The Torah didn’t say that he got rid of G-d’s fury, it says he returned it to heaven. This implies that by initiating a fear mongering relationship with the people, and by attempting to use violence pedagogically, you are just returning the anger in its intact form, and it will be ready to return in full force at any point. We can see that both in terms of G-d’s anger, but also in Phinehas’ as well. Once he has demonstrated his ability to kill in full force, the threat of his coercion looms over the camp ready to return at any moment. Phinehas has set a precedent, one that future Rabbis and Jews are told to reject. Fundamentalism that leads to violence is something that the Torah limits to Phinehas and therefore we need to see the effect of believing that if we adopt Phinehas’ extreme pursuit of divine justice we will be continually led by the sword. Furthermore, returning the hatred back to G-d can mean that the anger still exists, but in heaven. This is to say that resentment has been built against G-d on the side of the people, and that the residue of this moment of sublime means that the disconnect between G-d and the people further widens. Also, the hatred no longer exists on the people can be seen as a positive within the physical realm, but hatred built in heaven describes an amplified destructiveness in the heavenly sphere.
But why does G-d refer to two covenants with Phinehas? Surely it is to give him benedictions and to honour the status of his deeds. We can read their existence as a way of correcting Phinehas and reminding him of his destined role in the community. This role comes with responsibility and the message really brings home the conflicting values at play by taking note of his priestly lineage, and that Priests, in particular, bear the covenant of peace “בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽ:ם” Numbers 25:12. His grandfather’s motto of peace-building within the home, “שְׁלוֹם בַּיִת” is found within this phrase (with the numerology of Phinehas plus his two victims being the leftover value). Focusing on his family, forces us to read this story in contradistinction to a story about two other people dying in front of the tent of meeting, Nadav and Avihu. Both sections of the Torah are read on Yom Kippur and they are so intwined that the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism, intricately weaves the names of these three individuals in order to explain the cosmic link between them. Phinehas’ uncles died in an act of zealousness, and so living in a zealous state is a dangerous line to toe. The religious fervour of Nadav and Avihu is frowned upon in the case of the Nazirite, and the judgemental wrath of Phinehas is obscenely exemplified in the case of the Sotah. Both of these problematic biblical examples are found in the portion that tasks the priest to suspend all zealousness and serve the people with unadulterated love (as Briah so beautifully demonstrated in her sermon on Parshat Nasso).
Phinehas truly represents an individual who goes to extreme measures to see to it that his high standard of justice is kept. The numerology of Phinehas is the same as the Patriarch Isaac, the forefather that embodies the divine emanation of Gevurah/Din, Judgement. In Rabbi Luria’s mystical text, Sefer Hagilgul, The Book of Reincarnation, he describes Elijah the prophet as the reincarnation of Phinehas. Elijah lived in a period where idol worship was rampant, and it was his life mission to steer the people back to G-d by any means necessary. Elijah brought about a famine that devastated the land just to prove his point. Finally, the 24,000 that died in the plague is reminiscent of a rabbinic account of the Bar Kochbah revolt. In this legend, it is said that Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 pairs of students died in a plague.
These biblical and rabbinic allusions accentuate the troubling nature of this story. The Torah hints at the disconcerting feeling we get around the character of Phinehas, however there are four ways in which the Torah visually demonstrates the disconnect between Phinehas and the people, or perhaps Phinehas and himself. The story is told in chapter 25 and spans 18 sentences. The Parsha begins right at the middle point, after the climax of the story on the 10th sentence. This peculiarity depicts a cut before the first letter of the sentence (an odd fact on its own but will make sense shortly) Unlike the next three examples this isn’t necessarily explicit, because the Parsha and sentence divisions came many centuries after the Torah was written, however it definitely captures the feeling of cognitive dissonance in reading the text experientially. The imagery of reenacting this imagery in a vicarious read of the text will become more explicit in the other three examples.
Second, when Phinehas is first introduced in this section his name is modified. The Yud in his name is shorter than usual. Yud already being the smallest letter when reduced in size looks like a Nikkud, which means blot, as if to say “this is a blot on his name”. The tradition of modifying letters only exists in rare circumstances, but as we’ll see, comes up twice in the first two sentences of this section. The value of the Yud is 10, so we see this number return to the forefront of this passage. The letter Yud is the shortest of G-d’s name, which alludes to the diminishment of G-d in this story. It is also the only letter that floats, like an apostrophes. This visually highlights the letter that is not grounded and distances itself from the line floor even more.
Third, the word “שָׁלֽ:ם”, meaning wholeness or peace is written with a slash in the middle. It symbolically represents the lack of wholeness among the people, and conveys a continuity being severed between G-d on high and the people below. Being cut in the middle also conjures up the image that the letter Vav itself represents the couple that Phinehas had killed, where the cut marks their punctured stomachs. The letter being distinguished here shows a transition from the second letter to the third. It is significant to note that this word is in reference to the Brit so we can also look at the significance of the broken Vav as a broken covenant. Finally, because the Yud is modified in the previous sentence, the remedy is prescribed in the issue itself. If Phinehas gets out of his own head, and takes of himself and puts it into the covenant of peace, then he would be able to, with patchwork, rectify the brokenness of the Vav. In fitting the Yud in the crack of the Vav we can actually see the three spots as thirds. Plato discusses the ideal society as having three groups in the hierarchy: Guardians, Auxiliaries, and Craftsmen. The auxiliaries are the Police force that enforce the laws of the philosophers who reside in the seat of the guardians. Isaac, the forefather of judgement also sits in that second seat.
The fourth literary peculiarity is how the first three words of chapter 26 begin in the same paragraph as chapter 25. This is particularly striking because we don’t usually see paragraph breaks in the middle of sentences, let alone new stories. Chapter 26 breaks completely from the story, but the three words in our paragraph “And it came to pass after the plague” “וַיְהִ֖י אַחֲרֵ֣י הַמַּגֵּפָ֑ה” do harken back to the last words of the disjointed Parsha split that we see between Numbers 25:9-10, when it says that “24,000 people died in the plague”. The last letter before the break is Hay and so we have singled out the letters Yud, Vav, and Hay the letters of the Tetragrammaton in connecting the first sentence fragment of chapter 26 (the numerological value of the Tetragrammaton) to our chapter (25, which is the first two letters of the Priest, while the third letter Nun Sofit both represents the intact Yud, and Vav and then taking those letters and going further. The numerological value of Nun is also 50, making 25 the exact halfway point)
We have four demonstrations of modifications and abrupt breaks from the norm. And Phinehas’ jarring actions make us not wonder necessarily what it was that he did, but what is the society that he lived in that brought him to his actions. Of course we should not rationalize or provide justification to acts of violence, but if we look at the state of affairs in America we see a country that last year experienced more mass shootings then there were days in the year (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/mass-shootings-2019-more-than-days-365/), with death and injury tolls averaging to about 23,000 each (eerily close to the 24,000 described in the Parsha). Is the system fostering an environment for mass shootings? Is the ease of acquiring firearms the cause of these mass shootings or merely a contributing factor? Must we look deeper into the systemic structure of classism and racism? Setting those questions aside, we need to ask what should our reaction be to this, should we take the Phinehan approach and strengthen the police force, is police brutality an issue all unto itself. To understand how to approach these questions, I have turned to my Grandfather’s sermons. A jubilee ago, in the summer of 1968, my grandfather was struck with these very questions. And so the Priest, from the synagogue “Brit Shalom”, can clue us in to an answer that I think we need to listen to more than ever:
Two Ways To Bring Domestic Peace
Rabbi Moshe Cahana
The tragedy of Senator Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles should cause us to be concerned with the civil climate that exists in our land. It is true that it was only one man who triggered the murderous bullet, 200 million Americans did not point guns at the Senator. It is also true that 200 million Americans did not plot the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King; nor were they in Dallas to kill the President of the United States, or in Mississippi to kidnap and murder three freedom riders; in Birmingham to bomb a Sunday School class. All of these vicious acts of violence and many, many others were made by outcasts of society and not by 200 million Americans.
But it is also true that all of those acts took place in America, and nothing like this happens anywhere else in the world. The lives of American political personalities are in danger. The roads of Texas and streets of New York are not safe for usage in the darkness of night. Our lives and property do not seem to be protected.
In order to get this protection, some people advocate the strengthening of the police forces, to give them an encouraging hand that they may enforce the law with a strong arm. Kosygin is quite safe within the walls of the Kremlin and the Soviet intellectuals who dare to write about liberty, find themselves swiftly put in jails. Nasser is quite safe in Cairo, his police and armed forces secure his movements. Maybe people tried to assassinate Hitler but they could not even come close to him. When 10 million Frenchmen went on strike, protesting the degradation of their living conditions, DeGaulle called out the French army and subdued their disobedience.
An authoritative regime can easily enforce the law and can surely protect the life of the leader, but the price is —the establishment of a Police State — and history has proven that all Police States eventually become a region of terror. AMERICA DOES NOT DESIRE NOR DESERVE THIS!
The American society is an open society. Our heritage is freedom and liberty. Our glory is the way we citizens are treated, with dignity and confidence. Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is the basic fibre of our way of life. Close contact between our people and our leaders is the foundation of our liberty. This should never be jeopardized, nor should we tolerate any compromise of this glorious heritage that gave us the character of a free people.
How then can we combat the violence that exists in our midst? We must each question question the causes which brought about this unprecedented outbreak of violence.
Great tensions exist in our land today. Tensions between the races, tensions between the ethnic groups, tension between the generations which differ dramatically on their outlook on life; tension between the social classes among whom the economic gap widens daily. The rich become richer and the poor poorer. The millionaires become multi-millionaires and the multi-millionaires become billionaires, and with the cost of living rising constantly, the misery of the poor increases.
The lives of the middle and upper classes become sweeter every day, and the poor man’s hope, that he will one day catch up with the others, becomes dimmer. Even the hope that his children will escape poverty becomes less sure. As our society becomes more industrialized and electrified, it takes more years of study and preparation to attain opportunities in the privileged vocations.
Frustrations and unfulfilled hopes breed bitterness and tension. Bitterness and tension discharges itself by violence that shakes the very foundation of our society. This poisoned tension has to be reduced substantially and eventually eliminated from our midst. We must find remedies that will cure the shortcomings of our society and correct what needs to be corrected. We have to legislate laws to aid the needy and bring hope, as well as new opportunities, to the underprivileged.
We must have the courage to evaluate our present ideas and beliefs so that we may establish here in the United States a harmonious peaceful society, that will bring justice, progress and spiritual enrichment for all its citizens.
May the Almighty bless us with the will to do all of this. Amen.
Congregation Brith Shalom
My grandfather had a very interesting relationship with police. The word, Police, itself seems to have been something of a motif in his life, and so he thought of the place for prisons in our society constantly. His sister with Alzheimer’s holds onto her first memory as a toddler, was playing outside and getting lost somehow. A family adopted her, and sent a police report, but back at the Cahana residence they were worried sick about their missing child. My grandfather figured that there might be a police report calling out for a missing child and sure enough she was reunited with her family. All of his life he spoke about the utopian society being the Israeli Kibbutz. What he was always fixated on was the fact that they function without a police force built in. The trust and accountability that is pervasive in Kibbutz culture, therefore is inspiring.
From a young age he did not trust the police. On a taxi ride home after a wedding, his mother and grandmother were both murdered. His 3-year old sister hiding under her mother’s dress survived with another young boy who hid under a prayer shawl. The two of them walked 100 meters up the road to a British Police station to report the atrocious travesty they just witnessed. The trauma of the police officers response did not leave my grandfather’s family for decades. They said that It was not their responsibility and that there was nothing that they would do about it. Every time my grandfather’s sister would mention this incident with disgust, my grandfather would always remind her how helpful the Police were in reuniting her with her family when she got lost playing outside as a kid.
In his last conversation with his mother, he was trying to convince her to let him go to Yeshiva in Europe. She told him that she had a bad premonition against it, and fortunately he didn’t, as it was right before the Holocaust.
My grandfather saw the dangers of a State against its citizenry, in Europe and in Israel and believed that it is a duty to stand up to authority when they are not acting justly. He left Yeshiva at 18 and fought against British officers in the paramilitary group called the Irgun. One of his first tests in the Irgun was to spy on the officers of a communist paramilitary and to prove his loyalty by fighting them. When he saw the other officers he saw that his brother was one of them, and his anti-violent moral code came rushing back to him. He devised a strategy to instigate a fight but to not lay a fist on any of them, and he was proud to have not killed anyone in his entire time serving in the Irgun. This was enough to prove his loyalty and he quickly moved up the ranks.
He didn’t shoot anyone, but his talents were used for his language adeptness and sharp lateral thinking that he developed throughout his childhood studying Talmud in Yeshiva. As the Chief Intelligence Officer in Jerusalem, he wrote the official ethics code for the Irgun Officers and devised a code of ethics that took into account the longterm goals of the Irgun. One of the Irgun’s questions was with the eventual Heterogeneous state that would emerge, how would they be able to legislate and enforce a just society that would allow for the coexistence of both Arabs and Israelis in the land. As an important figure in the Irgun that was strategizing ways to undermine the incumbent powers of British Mandate Palestine he found himself organizing terrorist operations, such as the bombing of the King David Hotel. His name made its way into the British most wanted list which made it a certainty that, during this period in his life, he was always on the run. He even had a short, covert wedding, where his head was on a swivel the entire time, ready to leave at any moment. One of his strategies, while he lived in hiding, was to hide where the British would least expect. So he stayed on the top floor of a Police house. Little did the Police know that the man that they were looking for was underneath their noses the whole time. When independence finally arrived, he believed that finally a Jewish State would be able to institute a country that had all of its citizenry in mind, this was not the case. The Irgun were arch rivals with the Hagganah, and when the founder of the Hagganah, David Ben-Gurion established the first parliament, he Black Listed all former members of the Irgun and made it impossible for them to find work.
So my grandfather immigrated to Sweden and then to America. When he became a pulpit Rabbi the most important people he wanted to help serve, were those in prison. He would drive over an hour each way to provide spiritual guidance to the inmates in the Texas State Prison.
As a Rabbi in the south he became very active in the Civil Rights movement. He was not afraid to rile up some feathers and so the KKK would place fire crosses on his lawn. After an entire life of standing up against the authorities and injustice, and after having spent so many years running from and being adjacent to prison, his life would not reach its climax until the day he got arrested. This is not to glorify incarceration in any way, however when he marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., a freedom fighter he had always revered, in Birmingham he finally was able to reach the highest form of protest. It always bothered him that the Irgun actualized change through tactical militaristic operations. Having written the code of ethics for the Irgun, he had always felt like Judaism guided him in understanding a moral framework with which he was compelled to understand. In the same sense that Phinehas felt pulled by the ethical stronghold that justified his actions, my grandfather was a pursuer of justice. He obsessed over concretizing Judaism within an ethical framework and even as a child in Heder he would rush to finish his work so that he could spend the extra time studying the Ethics of the Fathers. Police, the enforcers of a society’s ethics were therefore very intrinsically important barometer and revealers of the people’s ethic. What citizens will tolerate and what the government will enforce. In the broken Vav, Phinehas’ Yud is there for us to re-link the citizenry back with the authority. And only then can we remove Police altogether and enter into a Utopian society.
When my Grandfather got arrested, he was in the same jail cell as Martin Luther King Jr. and they had a discussion. Martin Luther King Jr. told my Grandfather that he commended his brave effort, but worried that perhaps it wasn’t wise as a Jew to give antisemites more fodder. My Grandfather told him, “Just because I marched with you does not mean that we will always see eye to eye, and I did not march because I wanted to. I marched because my Religion demanded it of me.”