“Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him.” — Numbers 25:11–12
The Torah portion for this week is Pinchas, which means “Phinehas,” from Numbers 25:10–30:1, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:46–19:21.
Do you know who won the first Peace Prize? The answer is Phinehas, and he earned it in this week’s Torah reading. For killing the Israelite man and Midianite woman who sinned publicly, God rewarded Phinehas with peace: “I am making my covenant of peace with him.”
Doesn’t that sound a little strange? Why would God reward violence with a covenant of peace?
There is a saying in Judaism that goes like this: “He who is kind when he should be cruel will end up being cruel when he should be kind.” There are times when cruelty is an act of kindness and kindness an act of cruelty. Take parenting, for example. A parent who doesn’t punish his child’s inappropriate behavior is setting up that child for a life of hard knocks and failure because the child never learns to control himself. The parent’s “cruel” behavior of disciplining a child can be an act of great kindness.
Now let’s take a closer look at the situation that Phinehas confronted and the change that he brought about through his actions. At the time, many Israelite men were sinning with the local Moabite women, who were inviting them to worship the gods of Moab. As a result, God sent a plague that had claimed 24,000 lives.
One of the Israelite men who sinned publicly wasn’t just any other man — he was a prince of Israel, the head of the tribe of Simeon. His decision to have immoral relations with a foreign woman could have led the entire nation into acts of immorality. As a result, God may have annihilated all the children of Israel as punishment. But Phinehas had the moral clarity and the bravery to put an end to this depraved behavior. His seemingly cruel act of violence saved thousands of lives and restored the peace among the Israelites.
There’s a story told about a man who arrives at the gates of heaven and is asked why he should be allowed in. The man says, “I was nice my whole life. I never rocked the boat or got into any disagreements. I let everyone do whatever they wanted.” The man was told, “My friend, that will buy you a first-class ticket to hell!”
No one likes confrontations, but sometimes we must stand up in the face of evil and speak out against immorality — not for our sake, but for the sake of God. Like Phinehas, we have to be ready to take a stand for the sake of peace.
Peace won’t come as we’re looking the other way while evil flourishes before our very eyes. It’s only when we pay attention and follow up with action that we will be rewarded with everlasting peace.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President