Plagues, Peace, and Pinchas The Priest: When meeting brings disaster -- and a cure

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

In the regular Jewish Torah reading for this week, we read the story of a Priest who becomes a murderer and calls a murderous God into reflective peacemaking.

In our own gwneration, the passage has been cited as justification for zealous murders --  justification for blood shed in our own generation (for example, the murder of Rabin). In response, many peaceniks of today shrug off the story as just another bloody streak in the Biblical fabric.

But I see the story in a different light --- one that celebrates turning from zealous murder to self-reflective peace.

In the ancient story, two peoples meet. There is risk in their meeting. Perhaps there is also a possible profit. Perhaps there is even possible delight. But among at least one of the peoples, the leadership is frightened and forbids all contact.

But there is contact anyway. Some of it is literal, physical contact: sexual relationships. But even traveling, buying, selling, may bring together across the boundaries maladies that had in ine people genetically winnowed those most mortally susceptible, leaving the disease troublesome but rarely deadly --   but never been known by the other people, and so still lethal when it suddently appeared. As a result, as such diseases leap the boundaries, Reality Itself, the very Winds of Change,  may bring on a plague of death.

In the ancient story, YHWH, the Breath of Life, the Hurricance of Change, blows on Its wings a plague, a pestilence. People begin to die -- thousands of them.

Is this just uncanny, a miracle?  In a much more recent story, just 500 years ago, we hear of a canny, scientifically explicable, disaster that bears marks of similarity: When the age-old barriers of Ocean were torn apart in the 16th century, two cultures came together that had never met. 

One theory is that the meeting had a “double plague” result:  measles decimated the Native Americans; syphilis, the Europeans. (There is an argument – as yet unresolved -- among paleoathologists whether syphilis existed in Europe before 1493). 

Was this because their intimate connection was in itself a "sin"? Or was it because the rush of new connection outran the care necessary to make the connection holy?

And what if the plague is perhaps even worse than a bacteriological disease? -What if it is a plague of arrogance and dominance? -- on one side, cannons; on the other, spears.  As we see in our own lives, governmental power ruthlessly applied for the private gain of wealth or power by those who already have great power can make even a plague of disease much worse.

When the Sea splits or ghetto walls fall, best make sure that as the boundaries that had been sharp and high between you become newly fuzzy, you tie sacred tzitzit -- conscious fuzzy fringes --  to mark the contact points. Take care!

But what about those who do not take sufficient care?

The Torah's story of Pinchas is one of our sharpest tests. The Israelites made friends with the people of Moab, joining with them sexually and celebrating their gods. God  --  that is, Reality Itself --  sent a plague upon them. Our Name for this Reality is "YHWH."  Pronounce it with no vowels and you get the sound of breath and wind,  for YHWH is the Zealous Breath of Life, the Wind of Change,  the Hurricane of Transformation.

The peoples met each other unprepared. The Wind of Change blew across their unprepared and unprotected boundaries, blowing into them a plague, a pestilence.

Then Pinchas, a priest and one of Aaron's sons, sees an Israelite and a Midianite having sex. In rage he flings his lance at them, transfixes and kills them both. The plague of violence ends the plague of sickness. And the Torah continues (Num. 25: 10-13):

"YHWH so-worded it through Moses, saying:

" Pinchas has turned back my hot wrath from upon the Children of Israel by expressing-zealously My zeal [b'kano et-kinati] amidst them. And so I did not finish off the Children of Israel in My zealotry [b'kinati].

" Therefore I say: Here! I give him my Covenant of Shalom; it shall be for him and his seed after him a covenant of priesthood forever, because of/ replacing [tachat] his zealotry for his God, through which he made-atonement for the Children of Israel. "


Most readers have taken this to mean that God was pleased with Pinchas. But try reading God's words this way:

"In a blind rage, consumed with jealousy/zealotry, I began killing My people with the plague. Then Pinchas imitated Me: in his own blind and jealous rage, he turned his hand to killing.

"His jealous/ zealous act opened my eyes, shocked me into shame at what I Myself was doing. I said to him, 'I will stop, and you must stop!' That is why I stopped the plague; that is why I made with Pinchas my covenant of shalom/ peace."

In this reading, God does a turn-around, a "tshuvah." God grows. The God Who begins by bringing a plague upon the people ends by making a covenant of peace. The God Who is horrified by Pinchas also sees in Pinchas' face one facet of God's Own Face.

But if we mean by "God" not an white-bearded old man in the sky but rather the Breath of Life Whose Name we hear if we try to pronounce the "YHWH" with no vowels at all; if we mean that God Who is within us, among us, beyond us --  then what does it mean for that God to do tshuvah?

What do we mean when we say "God" brought on the plague and halted it, ordered a genocide and made a covenant of peace ?

We mean that the deep processes of the universe, the Very Breath of Life Itself, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, the Name God takes on in conversation with Moses at the Burning Bush, the Name that means "I Will Be Who I Will Be," the Name that is a spiral process of Becoming  -- those processes themselves act in subterranean ways to bring on genocides and plagues, and also to call forth human intervention to prevent, to soften, and to heal them.

Sometimes I image this Deep Process as a double spiral or helix of I-It and I-Thou --  both of them, Divine attributes that arise in the very process of the arousal of the universe: one devotedly pursuing more and more self-reflectiveness in order to become more efficient; the other devotedly pursuing more and more self-reflectiveness in order to become more loving.

One I-It, one I-Thou. Both, aspects of One God. Perhaps more satisfying and more accurate than the classic (Kabbalistic) sense of male and female aspects of God.

Alone, I-It consumes everything around us, everything we grow from, ultimately ourselves. Alone, I-Thou dissolves us into an unboundaried pool of complacent admiration. When the one leaps forward or the other hunkers down, the universe must "do tshuvah,"  make a crucial turn on the spiral of sacred history, in order to mirror the Infinite God more fully.

And what does it mean for us today? A surge of I-It power within both the Jewish and Palestinian peoples has given each of them a political strength and toughness that neither had, one century ago. And that surge of volcanic energy has thrown them into conflict with each other, as they erupt in each other's faces in the one Land they both call home.

Out of this I-It collision, each people has already given birth to more than one Pinchas. Zealous murderers, zealous home-demolishers, zealous wielders of asphalt to bury farmland and divide communities. What we need is a new surge of I-Thou. a new Covenant of Peace.

For Jews, that means not only making sure that every Pinchas among us abides by God's Covenant of Peace. Not only repudiating all efforts to justify mrder today in the name of Pinchas. Not only undertaking a public, clear, explicit, and vigorous effort to reeducate all Jews to see that God learned from Pinchas to repudiate such acts of zealotry.

It also means that we must shape our contacts with other peoples in as much mindfulness as the weaver shapes the fuzzy, intricate boundaries of tzitzit.

When Palestinians and Israelis join with each other to mourn those who have died at each other's hands, that weaves a sacred fringe between us.
When our peoples join in a "Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah," remembering our ancient loving family, the conflicts that erupted between us, and the peace that Ishmael and Isaac created at their father's grave  --  that Seder weaves a sacred fringe between us.

When Israelis and Palestinians work together to rebuild the homes destroyed by order of the Israeli government, that weaves a sacred fringe between us.

And on an even larger scene - our planet,  filled with Hurricanes of Change, it is not only Israelis and Palestinians who must learn to make the careful fringes of covenant.

Who must?

Americans who sing "from sea to shining sea" as if those seas were impervious boundaries that give us safety.  Americans who in the same song, "America the Beautiful," sing of the "alabaster cities undimmed by human tears" -- but ignore New Orleans, the city that was drowned in not only water but indifference.  The city drowning in its own tears.  Americans  who think we meet others only to convince them our ways are best -- or if they say No, to civilize 'em with a bomb.  

Muslims who dream of the uncorrupted Territory of the Faithful, and are enraged by the fuzzy truths of other cultures, nations, dotted in their midst. Muslims who respond to outrageous attacks on their own self-determination with outrageous attacks on the peoples, the civilians, of those domineering governments.

Those in both America and Islam who gobble oil and slobber blood as they seek a wider, longer, fuller war against the Other.

Here too we must mourn together, pray together, act together to bring each other and all the life-forms on our planet into a new Covenant of Peace.

When together we rebuild a house in New Orleans; when together we erect a windmill for the sake of decarbonated energy; when together we lobby to subtract subsidies from Big Oil and Big Auto, offering them instead to wind power, to solar energy,  to the railroads --

These will be the common ceremonies, the common tasks, we can weave onto the corners of our peoplehoods and species so as to create a Covenant of Peace.

To become true priests of the Breath of Life.

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