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Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Paradoxical Peace


Dvar Torah For Parshat Pinchas, First of Tlata D’Puranuta, 5770/4th of July Weekend, 2010.

Often when I deliver a d’var Torah, I point out grammatical anomalies in the Torah scroll – strange or out of place words, phrases, and grammatical features that hint at some deeper message or teaching. Certainly, many of these anomalies abound. However, equally prominent and suggestive in the Torah text are what I call orthographic anomalies: the strange ways in which letters, words, paragraphs, and verses are actually spelled or written. In the brief course of a mere 13 verses, the first aliyah of Parshat Pinchas contains three of these strange features. Let’s look at each of them and ask ourselves what they may be teaching us, separately and together. Unfortunately, our version of the Humash has expunged a number of these features to make the text cleaner. As I guide you through each of them, I ask you to imagine what they look like. After services, I’ll be happy to show them to you in the Torah scroll itself.

The first anomaly is found at Numbers, 25:11, which you can find on page 918. Notice the name of Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas. Though you can’t see it here, in the Torah scroll the yud letter in his name is written smaller than the other letters. Though it may have originated as a scribal error, it has persisted as the standard way in which to write his name here. It is known in ancient scribal tradition as a Yud Zeirah, a miniature yud. Further, that yud letter is actually not entirely necessary for the spelling of the name. This is an example of ketiv malei, or full script, a full writing of the name Pinchas that uses the yud letter as a vowel. Without that letter, we could still pronounce the name Pinchas properly.

The second anomaly is found in the last word of Numbers, 25:12, shalom, which is on page 919. Again, our Humash version lacks this, so please imagine that you can see it. In the Torah scroll, the vav letter of the word shalom is actually split in half. It is known in scribal tradition as Vav Ketiyah, a snapped or broken vav. This broken vav may also have originally been a scribal error or the result of a crack in ancient parchment. Nonetheless, the tradition of writing this letter in this way is very ancient (it is mentioned by a Talmudic rabbi who lived in the 3rd or 4th century), and it obviously has stuck with us for millennia.

The final anomaly is found in the middle of Numbers, 25:19 and 26:1, on page 920. Our Humash clearly indicates this strange feature with a small star near the final word of verse 19, and by leaving out a colon next to that word that would normally indicate the completion of a verse. This is called Piska B’Emtza Pasuk: a sentence break in the middle of the verse. What this means is that the three words of 25:19 are actually the middle of a sentence, but we treat them as if they were their own separate verse. They form what grammarians call a dependent clause that, translated, reads simply, “When the plague was over…”

All three of these curiosities in our text are emphasized by the Baalei Hamesorah, the very exacting schools of scribal scholars who lived in the land of Israel between the 8th and 10th centuries. They assembled literally thousands of notes on features of the Torah scroll’s script and wording based upon even older traditions that have survived in the Jewish community for millennia. As I alluded to before, what is so amazing about these three is that they are all found in one short 13 verse passage of Parshat Pinchas. What might they be telling us, or more likely, screaming at us?

A good way to begin answering this question is to recall the back story to this morning’s Torah portion. Last week we read about how Pinchas engaged in vigilante justice by killing an Israelite chieftain who engaged in lascivious behavior with a Midianite woman in front of the Tent of Meeting. He did this to avert a virulent plague caused by God that was already in progress, the result of God’s anger at the Israelites for idolatrous behavior with the Midianites. When we reentered the Torah this morning, we encountered God granting Pinchas and his descendants a pact of peace and friendship, as well as the mantle of the priesthood in perpetuity. God did this, according to the Torah, because of Pinchas’es act of impassioned and zealous violence that calmed down God’s fury with the Israelites.

The comments in our Humash summarize the two main explanations for this covenant of peace and friendship given by God to Pinchas. The first one, that the Torah and a number of later commentaries on it, makes clear that God’s violent anger was averted by Pinchas’es violence. Presumably this is because Pinchas satisfied God’s need for one person to empathically feel and act upon God’s fury. It may also be that his curative act of violence is an echo of a distant, ancient belief that the two victims were some kind of a sacrificial offering to appease God. This is pure speculation on my part. However, it is clear that without Pinchas’es belligerent behavior, God would have continued plaguing and killing the people. For the Torah, his act was thus justified and desirable, even if shocking and unacceptable to our modern ears. Thus, the pact of eternal peace, friendship and favor was Pinchas’es reward. The second explanation is far more qualified in its praise of Pinchas. His passion and violent behavior were not good, because of the bloody destruction they wrought, and the way in which his vigilantism dangerously ignored the rule of law. The pact of eternal peace, friendship and favor was hardly a reward for his behavior, and more of an attempted antidote to his violent tendencies.

These two opposing explanations for God’s grant of peace to Pinchas actually give way to a third, more subtle explanation, one that members of our Monday morning minyan advanced the other day during the weekday Torah service. The Torah is quite clear that God’s wrath was averted when Pinchas killed the man and the woman. 24,000 people had already died from the plague, and Pinchas’es actions saved even more from being killed. He did what needed to be done for the sake of the entire community. However, his necessary act of violence had a horribly disruptive effect upon the rest of his life, because that is the price we pay for acting aggressively, even if the aggression is warranted in the name of peace. Thus, the small yud in his name symbolizes the way in which part of his identity shrunk after his drastic action. The broken vav in the word shalom indicates how broken Pinchas became after he acted, and how the peace he found in serving God and averting disaster was forevermore broken and incomplete. The strange interruption in the verse about the ending of the plague reminds us that Pinchas’es act of self sacrifice interrupted the peaceful flow of his life.

This interpretation of the aftermath of Pinchas’es actions underscores the paradox of peacemaking, something I suspect every soldier understands all too well. It is all well and good to love peace and detest war, which of course we should. But, until the Messiah arrives, military intervention often remains the only feasible option for protecting fragile democracies, thwarting thug leaders who oppress their own people in rogue states, containing genocidal violence between warring groups, and defending one’s borders and one’s citizens. Our American soldiers –and our brothers and sisters in the Israel Defense Forces as well- are similar to Pinchas in the following way. They perform the dirty, hand bloodying tasks of peace keeping that everyone wants done, but that no one else wants to do. They depart from family and friends for long periods of time with no guarantees of safe return. This is traumatic enough. During their tour of duty they are faced with helping Iraqis and Afghanis to build peaceful, democratic lives, while being forced to take their lives into their own hands and to take the lives of terrorists and Taliban. At times they are tragically killed while defending others. At times, they return home broken by the bloodiness of their peacekeeping efforts, and forced into the living death of disabling war injuries, deep depression, drug use and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Right after President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the acceptance speech that he wished the president would give. It went like this:
“Members of the Nobel committee, I accept this award on behalf of all these American men and women soldiers, past and present, because I know — and I want you to know — that there is no peace without peacekeepers. Until the words of Isaiah are made true and lasting — and nations never again lift up swords against nations and never learn war anymore — we will need peacekeepers. Lord knows, ours are not perfect, and I have already moved to remedy inexcusable excesses we’ve perpetrated in the war on terrorism. But have no doubt, those are the exception. If you want to see the true essence of America, visit any U.S. military outpost in Iraq or Afghanistan. You will meet young men and women of every race and religion who work together as one, far from their families, motivated chiefly by their mission to keep the peace and expand the borders of freedom. So for all these reasons — and so you understand that I will never hesitate to call on American soldiers where necessary to take the field against the enemies of peace, tolerance and liberty — I accept this peace prize on behalf of the men and women of the U.S. military: the world’s most important peacekeepers.”

This July 4 weekend, as we enjoy, and perhaps take for granted, the blessings of liberty and peace, let’s take a moment to think of, thank, and find ways to support our soldiers. Like Pinchas, they enter the paradox of peacekeeping every day. We are better off for their efforts.

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