Pinchas - 5780
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week’s Torah portion has a lot of anger. That is, as Rabbi Pamela Wax teaches (1), five different expressions and types of anger are woven into the parasha, and in essence, serve as a unifying theme.
Here are just three:
The portion opens with a murder, or perhaps an execution – depending on your point of view. God is angry with the Israelites (not for the first time) because of growing idolatry in their midst. As a punishment, God sends a terrible plague that kills entire swaths of the population. In order to prevent more Israelite deaths, Pinchas (for whom the portion is named), kills an Israelite man and a Midianite idol worshipper for cohabitating with a single thrust of his spear. This act of violence successfully averts God’s divine wrath. Yet, as Rabbi Wax observes, is the use of violence the best way to remove anger? Pinchas’ actions effectively enabled God’s “acting out” instead of what Moses and Abraham had done in the past, which was to talk God down and plead for the well-being of Israel.
The second expression of anger involves the five daughters of Zelophophad who petitioned Moses to grant them the right of inheritance from their father, who had no sons to leave his estate to. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel this was unheard of. If there were no sons, the inheritance would go to the nearest male relative. The daughter’s anger at this injustice can be seen by in the Hebrew by how they demand the inheritance, rather than ask for it politely. In this case, their anger is rewarded, and their request granted.
The third exploration of anger brings us back to last week’s parashah, to when Moses lashed out in anger at the Israelites for demanding water from him while he was grieving for his sister Miriam. In his anger he put himself in place of God and acted as if he was miraculously causing the water to flow from the rock. His punishment was that after forty years of leading our difficult and cantankerous people through the Wilderness, Moses would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In this week’s portion, Moses humbly references that moment and accepts his punishment, by asking God to designate his successor. In other words, he has completed his process of teshuvah – of repentance and return to the right path.
Taken together, these three different episodes shed light on how anger can play out in our own lives, how it can be harnessed for good when necessary, and how to move through and past it to find a better place. Then and now.
In today’s world, anger brought us to a rather odd place this week, especially for those who are both Jewish and football fans. You know who you are!
I am referring to Eagles star wide receiver Desean Jackson, who posted some anti-Semitic remarks on Instagram, including a false claim that Hitler said that Black people were “the real Children of Israel” and that white Americans would be terrified to know that they have been “mistreating and discriminating and lynching” them. There was a quick and powerful backlash, after which he took down the post and apologized, only to then turn around and praise Louis Farrakhan, who is himself considered by many, including me, to be an anti-Semite.
Again, there was a strong backlash, and again Desean Jackson apologized and took down his post, and pleaded ignorance.
Before saying anything else, I want to acknowledge that as painful as his comments were and are, thank God that we live in a nation where most people simply will not tolerate such statements. He may be an NFL superstar, but his anti-Semitism was quickly and powerfully repudiated, and for that I am grateful. However, the same is not as true for those who declare that Black Lives don’t Matter.
For this reason, it is not enough to simply say we have to stop anti-Semitism. This story, still unfolding in real time, gives us an opportunity to go deeper. I believe Desean Jackson when he pleads ignorance. I believe that he does not understand the first thing about anti-Semitism and the realities and dangers Jews have faced throughout history and throughout the world. And, I believe he was trying (and failing) to express the same righteous anger as the daughters of Zelophophad – anger against injustice.
It is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that the Coronovirus has exposed the racial injustice which exists systemically in our nation against black and brown people. For the first time in a long time, more and more white people are becoming aware of how prevalent and devastating this injustice is. Many of us support the cause of fighting racial injustice, and we are seeking to become anti-racist allies for Black and Brown people.
That cause is just. However, Desean Jackson expressed his anger in way that looked more like Pinchas than the sisters Zelophophad. And while the NFL did not respond directly, some of his fellow players chose to be friends rather than enablers. Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner, who is also black, shared an emotional video in which he denounced anti-Semitism and referenced the Tree of Life massacre, and then went on to say: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now. I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift [the Jewish community] and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves. We can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves. That’s very important to me and should be important to everyone.” (2)
This is a classy response, and I am grateful to Banner for speaking so powerfully. He epitomized the Jewish value of tochechah, of rebuke when our friends do something wrong – not out of anger, but out of love for them, so that they can learn and grow.
My favorite response, however, came from Julian Edelman, Superbowl MVP and Patriots wide receiver, who also happens to be Jewish. He posted a video in which he spoke deeply and profoundly in solidarity with black and brown people. And then he ended with the following blockbuster statement: “We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to act. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change. Desean, let’s do a deal, how about we go to D.C., and I take you to the Holocaust Museum, and you take me to the Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterward, we grab some burgers, and we have those uncomfortable conversations. This world a little more love, compassion, and empathy.” (3)
Edelman moves from rebuke to teshuvah just as Moses did, and he recognizes that there is ignorance among Jews about black and brown racial injustice, just as Desean Jackson demonstrated and acted out of ignorance of anti-Semitism. I really hope they get together and tour the museums and have a heart to heart over burgers.
The goal for all of us is not to get into a contest to see who has suffered more, or even to try to compare our different pains, but to acknowledge that we all have something to learn, and that right now, black and brown people are suffering and that healing can only come through the uncomfortable process of teshuvah – of opening ourselves up to the realities which we prefer to ignore, of doing the serious soul searching that leads to lasting change, and then determining to act on what we have learned. In this way, anger becomes love, fear becomes understanding, weakness becomes strength.
(1) Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas – Kaas: An Anger Banquet,” in Block, Rabbi Barry H. ed. The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020, p. 253-57
(2) Zach Banner, Instagram post, July 8, 2020
(3) Julian Edelman, Instagram post, July 9, 2020