Parshat Pinchas by Erica Rothschild
Parshat Pinchas is quite the appropriate parsha to read as the first week of the summer fellowship comes to a close. It’s messages on leadership and social justice are reinforced in our daily experience at Uri L’Tzedek. The parsha opens up with recalling the heroic deeds of Pinchas, a zealous leader. Last week’s parsha, Parshat Balakt, frames the scene: Bnot Moav are setting the trend of idol worship, and allowing their actions to negatively affect the masses of Bnei Yisrael. As Pinchas this he decides to take action and dramatically stab a provocative sinner before the eyes of the people. When the parsha opens up with the summary of this story, it relays an inspiring message: “Pinchas Ben-Elazar Ben-Aharon HaCohen hayshiv et chamati may’al Bnei Yisrael bkan’o et kinati b’tocham, v’lo kiliti et bnei yisrael nkinati” (25:11) “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon HaCohen, has turned my wrath away from the children of Yisrael, in that he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Yisrael in my jealousy.” Pinchas is an action-oriented leader; his one passionate action was enough to save everybody dying from the plague. The story illustrates the value and affect one activist can have.
Rabbi Avi Weiss spoke to the summer fellows this week about spiritual leadership. His three main principles of leadership are reflected by Pinchas. The first principle: A true spiritual activist does not get involved in the case because it is popular, but because it is right. Though the Torah is explicit, the people of the time went against the monogamous contract we have with God. The breaking of this bond leads not only to physical destruction, but spiritual destruction and the loss of strength within the nation. Pinchas saw this amongst the sinning nation and decided that was enough reason for him to take action. Rabbi Weiss also taught us the importance of bold actions and that change does not come about through process. There was a sense of urgency; Pinchas did not wait to get organized and have a community meeting- he acted in a controversial way to reach his goal. This approach differs than that used by Bnot Slafchad later in the parsha, who use the existing system to work with their problem.
The second principle is that a spiritual activist does not enjoy activism all the time. Even though Zimri was sinning, pulling out a knife and killing a fellow Jew is a difficult task. Not all things can have a positive campaign. “If you want to make an omelet, you must be willing to break a few eggs,” while quoting Lenin in a Dvar Torah seems strange, the principle applies; the road of activism is a difficult one. Pinchas’s display of killing a fellow Jew in the name of Hashem shows this point: to achieve the holistically greater goal, sacrifices have to be made.
The third and last principle of spiritual activism is that we all have capacity to change the world. The vision of the world’s future rests on a scale even with positive and negative deeds waiting to be tipped. We need to be ‘on our A-game’ everyday to work towards improving the world. Pinchas’s action was enough of a sign to Hashem showing that people not only care, but are active in their beliefs. This one activist’s actions stopped the plague and temporarily stopped the idol woship.
While the realm of social justice is a large, overwhelming and scary one, the story in the beginning of the Parsha is an inspiring applicable message. When things need to be changed- work to change them. The passion and action of one person can have an immeasurable affect on the world. While Pinchas was an action-oriented leader, the stories in the parsha show how different types of leadership succeed. The results of our everyday labors may not be as obvious as that of Pinchas, but working towards social justice is a constant struggle, and keeping in mind Rabbi Weiss’s three principles of spiritual activism can be a tool of chizuk to continue working towards what we know is right.