Parshat Pinchas by Noam Parness
In the biblical narrative of Pinhas, we find the nation of Israel at their lowest point since their sin of the golden calf. They have waited almost forty years to enter the land, and are so close to its border, yet we find the people inevitably falling into a pit of sexual and idolatrous practice with Baal Peor. Specifically when the Israelite Zimri brings Cozbi (a Midianite woman) to his companions (presumably for the purpose of sexual relations) in full view of Moses and the entire community, Pinhas reacts as follows:
“When Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed them both, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly.”
God, in return for Pinhas’ actions, rewards him with the brit shalom (covenant of peace). Pinhas’ actions, which God describes as being “b’kano et kinati”, is translated by some as “zealous for My sake”. This specific action of Pinhas, when described as zealotry, seems scary to the modern reader. Nowadays, religious zealotry often holds negative connotations, and especially in this narrative where the result is the death of two human beings solely on God’s behalf. Of course, one could simply console the discomfort by stating that political correctness and religious fundamentalism were never seen as problematic in biblical times. God’s praising Pinhas’ kinah tells of the correctness of his actions. Why then, shouldn’t this apply to all cases?
However, Alex Israel––a contemporary teacher of Tanakh––claims that in fact the Hebrew root kana shouldn’t necessarily be translated as zealotry. If one takes a closer look at the biblical story of sotah (Numb. 5:11-31), where the word kinah is used a number of times, the meaning of the word can actually be interpreted as “a state of impassioned emotion, the temperament that enlivens a person engaged in a relationship of exclusivity.” The husband in the case of sotah acts not from zealotry, but from suspicion and passionate outrage at the possibility of betrayal. So too, remarks Israel, in the case of Pinhas. He finds the relationship of God and Israel to be breaking, and in sheer passion does he act to save the Israelite’s lives in addition to their relationship with God. This act was not committed out of anger, rather motivated by ideals, whereby Pinhas arouses the nation from their deviance and restores some sense of order. Israel finally describes kinah as “the heightened awareness, the indignation, the sensitivity and passionate resolve to make a difference.” Thus, the trait and motivations of kinah can be seen as proper, and perhaps even necessary for acting in a scenario of dire importance. Such a message calls to every human being; that when one finds something terribly wrong in the world they becoming filled with kinah, whose result will hopefully not be murder, but the mending of a situation, be it on a global or personal level. The importance lies in the fact that one is filled with passion to the point that they must stand up, and won’t simply sit by “weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting”. This can perhaps make sensible the reward of the brit shalom. Only in such pressing circumstances, and only when such actions are motivated by a passion for change can an everlasting covenant of peace be the final result.