This week’s parasha, Balak, ends with a troubling interaction between the Israelites and the Moabites (Numbers 25:1-9). Israelite men engage in sexual relationships with women from the very people who just hired Bilaam to curse them - the Moabites. It is unclear, from the text, whether or not the type of relationship is itself inappropriate. What is clear is that the relationship inappropriately leads the men to worship and offer sacrifices to the Moabite gods. God becomes incensed with the Israelites and sends a plague to kill many of them. In response to idolatry, the highest level of violating God’s law, and the plague wiping out the Israelites, Moses orders his legal forces to execute those who have attached themselves to idolatry. Before the law can respond, an Israelite man takes a Midianite woman - the Midianites and the Moabites colluded in using Bilaam to curse Israel - and flaunts her in front of Moses and the entire congregation. The people and Moses begin to weep, but do nothing. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, takes a spear and, without considering the law or the legal system, executes the Israelite man and the Midianite woman in front of all the people. The Torah, whose ways are only supposed to be paths of peace, condones his actions. Through Pinchas’ shocking willingness to kill without deliberation, God’s wrath is quelled and the Israelites are saved from the plague, though it had already killed 24,000 Israelites.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9:6) uses the anecdote of Pinchas to declare that it is occasionally permissible for zealous people to step outside the law and execute their own justice. There are times when the law seems ineffective, too slow, or just wrong; in some cases like these, the Mishnah permits passionate individuals to take action on their own. While one of the three core statements of the Men of the Great Assembly was to always be deliberate in judgement (Avot 1:1), the Rabbis somehow permit zealous people, on very specific occasions, to be incredibly hasty in their actions. We know that hasty, zealous action can sometimes lead to positive change and even revolution, as many of us will celebrate on July 4. In the case of Pinchas, it saved thousands of lives. Nonetheless, his actions still seem disturbing. We have all unfortunately witnessed the abhorrent actions of those people who thoughtlessly murder others in the name of God, be it in a cafe, bus, or nightclub.
This story forces us to consider how we can determine when action beyond the law is necessary, abhorrent, or something in between. I am sure that all of us, at times, feel some system of rules to be frustratingly slow, wrong, or even immoral. We may have a desire to take action outside of that system. However, while those cases may indeed warrant an extrajudicial response, thankfully, they seldom require one as extreme as Pinchas’; in other cases, this kind of necessary action has taken the form of writing counter to government censors, marching in the streets, or harboring Jews in 1940s Europe. Hopefully, unlike Pinchas, the action we need to take is constructive, not destructive; we will see an example of this in next week’s portion, when the daughters of Tzlophchad appeal to Moses about their very real troubles with the law and its treatment of women. But our parasha seems to be a case where the confines of the legal system genuinely are ineffective. The system of law has failed to prevent rampant idolatry and leads to a plague on the people. Moses, under guidance from God, tells the legal officials to take action, but the only consequence is more unabashed idolatry. As the Israelites die from plague, those working within the system can only react with tears. It is only through the hasty, independent action of Pinchas that the nation is saved from idolatry - and thereby from God’s wrath.
However, while the Rabbis are careful to affirm that such action is sometimes necessary, they make clear that it also carries incredible risks. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a), the Rabbis teach us that had the Israelite man and Midianite women stopped their illicit behavior, and had Pinchas then still executed them, Pinchas would have been liable for murder. Further, if the Israelite had instead turned around and killed Pinchas before being killed, the Israelite, despite his crimes, would have been following his right to save himself, and would not be subject to punishment for killing Pinchas. That is, as much as we want to sometimes work outside the system of law, and as much as doing so might be appropriate, we need to also understand the risks. Once we break out of a system of law, we make ourselves vulnerable to the broken system as well. Our opponents can work outside of the law and be equally justified in their actions, since there is no codified system of justice controlling either side.
There are times we must fight against injustice and an entrenched or incorrect system, but we also need to be incredibly conscious of the grave consequences of those actions, and therefore strive to limit our work beyond the system only to those cases which are necessary and guided by our well trained moral instincts. We must, as I assume Pinchas did, train ourselves morally to have the wisdom to discern when acting outside of the law is necessary. May we all merit to achieve the wisdom which allows us to know when to act carefully and within the system and when to move beyond it. And may all of our actions be in the service of peace.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein