At the end of last week’s parasha, Pinchas acts as a revolutionary. Zealously and outside of the system of law, he rights what he sees as an injustice against God: Israelite men following Midianite women into idolatry. In the midst of a plague brought on by God’s anger, Pinchas kills an Israelite and Midianite couple who engage in sexual activity in front of the Sanctuary. This quells God’s wrath. Pinchas’ action prevent the plague from wiping out Israel. In this week’s parasha (Numbers 25:12), God grants Pinchas a covenant as a reward. That covenant is shalom: peace. Per the cantillation and Rashi’s commentary, it is not a covenant of peace; rather, peace itself is the covenant. Further, God also grants Pinchas and his descendants eternal priesthood.
Peace is an appropriate reward for Pinchas. His actions, though warranted, moved him outside of the system of Torah law--the system whose primary objective is peace. To save the people, Pinchas had to take radical, violent action. But by doing so, he essentially forfeited his priesthood. We see this in Talmud of the Land of Israel (Sanhedrin 9:7), which teaches us that the Sages sought to excommunicate Pinchas for his actions. He worked outside of the law, and they (understandably) wanted to remove him from the system entirely. Yet in the course of granting Pinchas peace, God also grants Pinchas and his descendents eternal priesthood, returning him to the system of law. In doing so, God instructs Pinchas and revolutionaries everywhere that while revolution is sometimes necessary, it must ultimately lead to a return to--or the creation of--a system of justice whose goal is peace for those who live under it.
The midrash in Sifrei Zuta, following a comment on Pinchas’ reward, explains that Torah is an allegory for peace--as it says in Proverbs 3:17, “All of its paths are peace.” By giving Pinchas this peace-covenant, God essentially gave Pinchas Torah, which is the instruction of a code of law. When Pinchas acted violently and outside the law, God affirmed his actions. But after his zealous deed was done, God then sent Pinchas on a path of action inside the law: towards non-violence, towards peace. By giving him the priesthood, God not only affirms Pinchas’ place in society, but his place as an instructor of the law, which is seen as part of the priestly duty.
Our own system of peace, Torah, also has internal ways to correct injustices and failures in the system. Not every injustice or failure requires a Pinchas-level reaction; it can also be resolved by action within the system. In our parasha, Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Titzah see an injustice in the laws of inheritance. These five women have no brothers. Because only men can inherit land, their father’s land stands to be lost to the immediate family after his death. Unlike Pinchas, they work to change the system with reasoned argument. The sisters argue that their father was not part of a rebellion against God, so why should the law remove his name from his family just because he has only daughters (Number 27:3-4). God rules in their favor. The Rabbis (Bava Batra 119b) imagine that the sisters not only made an argument based on rational analysis of the law, but an argument based on the very law that Moses was studying that day in the Beit Midrash. They argue within the current discourse, using Moses only studies. Given the recent events of Pinchas, they might have chosen to act as revolutionaries and forcibly taken their father’s land. Instead, they learned not from Pinchas’ actions at Ba’al Pe’or, but rather from the blessing given to Pinchas as the result of his radical actions: Torah, law, peace. They appealed to Torah, using Torah; they used law in a peaceable, reasonable approach. In response, God actually changes the laws of inheritance for everyone, not just for the sisters. These five women instruct us in another kind of revolution, one which brings about revolutionary change with revolutionary arguments, not revolutionary actions.
Pinchas’ approach, as I argued last week, is risky, but sometimes necessary. Sometimes the law is not sufficient, and we must act quickly, radically, and even rashly to fix it. But for all revolutionaries, when the goal is finished, the next objective must be a system which promotes the path of peace. We must take our revolutionary strength and apply it to a system of laws. As we have seen from countless revolutionaries who then become brutal leaders, having just any system of laws is insufficient. The system must be of a particular type: one that leads to and encourages peace--one that, like Pinchas’ blessing, turns the revolutionaries into subjects and leaders of the new system. God encourages Pinchas in this by granting him Torah through peace and peace through Torah, returning him to a position of leadership, instruction, obedience within the system. Machlah, No’ah, Choglah, Milkah, and Tirtzah demonstrate the best of this system, presenting us with a paradigm for how to be revolutionary within the Torah. As the verse in Psalms states (29:11), “Hashem will give strength to His nation; Hashem will bless His nation with peace.” Or, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."
Reb Joel Goldstein