There are always two unseen guests at every bris, neither has been specifically invited, yet the spirit of each is evoked. Of course Elijah is the first unseen guest as he often is at Jewish celebrations and commemorations. Elijah represents more than Israel’s glorious past, but in addition he embodies our most precious hopes. It is in his chair that the baby is held signifying the messianic promise that is being cut in this covenant. But also Elijah’s alter ego is present in Pinchas. The beginning of today’s parsha is read at every bris.
The LORD said to Moses, “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Bamidbar 25:11-13)
What an odd invocation for a bris; odder still Pinchas is never mentioned again during the ceremony. So who is this Pinchas, and why evoke his name?
Ode To a Religious Fanatic
The name of Pinchas first appears at the end of last week’s parsha, Balak. Pinchas appears out of nowhere as the zealous protector of Israel’s honor. Baalam the prophet/diviner/mercenary had been employed by Balak the tribal ruler of Moab to curse Israel so that Moab might overtake them. Unfortunately for the Moabite though, Balaam discovered that he could not curse that which Hashem had blessed, so rather than cursing Israel, he is ironically compelled to pronounce beautiful and insightful blessings, many which remain part of our liturgy to this day. According to tradition, since Balaam could not complete his insidious task, he counseled Balak to entice Jewish men to debauchery knowing that sexual morality is a foundation of Jewish holiness. (Nevuchim 1:36; Sanhdrin 106a). Not only then did Balak send Moabite women to entice the general population, but also the women of Midian were employed to undermine Israel’s leadership. So when Zimri son of Salu an elder of the tribe of Simeon was so brazen as to bring Cozbi a mideanite woman in plain sight into the center of Israel’s camp, it was a direct affront and challenge to the structure and authority of Moses leadership. Thirty five hundred years later it is somewhat axiomatic that the unchallenged relaxation of commonly held mores can potentially begin the slow erosion of societal foundations, and sex and money have the capacity to diminish or destroy religious endeavors. But few today would condone the spontaneous and apparently overzealous actions of Pinchas the avenger, who takes matters into his own hands, impaling both with one spear as they cohabitated. Outrageous? Over the top? Shocking? Overly dramatic? Illegal? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and according to Jewish law yes. But surprisingly God seems to approve. It seems best for us to think of this as far more extreme than occasionally permissible, for in fact it is downright exceptional. In other words, “don’t try this at home kids.”
Dare I say that if there is ever a time that widespread biblical illiteracy may have an unexpected benefit it is at a bris, a time when the parents are undoubtedly feeling a little tension concerning their newborn child undergoing minor surgery without the benefit of what is normally considered adequate anesthetic. I confess that though I am the father of four daughters and no sons, I am often too happy to stand in the back while the bris is taking place. The mohel will often try to alleviate the tension and distract the nervous parents by speaking comforting words, telling jokes, and at times treating the procedure as a slight of hand akin to a parlor magic act, all of which are completely appropriate. So then reading a passage of Torah that evokes the memory of a religious fanatic with a sharp object seems at the least unsettling. But while the obvious concern is for the little innocent at that the moment, the parents concern should most appropriately remain with the child’s place in the plans of Hashem; and the obvious demands that are incumbent to maintain the people of Israel as a people of God. When reminded of Pinchas we must effectively ask: How much are we willing to do for the causes that we believe are important to God? What in life is so sacred that we would risk all for it? Which causes are so important to us that we will let no person stand in our way? As we formally welcome a new child into the Jewish community are we going to transmit those passions to him or her? Will this child witness the passion? When? How?
The Ballad of A Depressed Prophet
If Pinchas’ zeal is for the proliferation and protection of Israel – then Elijah’s fire burns against Israel. The story of Pinchas in this week’s Torah portion is unsettling because he could be any person in the crowd, taking law and matters in his own hands. We do not know of him previously, and he does not seem to have any specific anointing of God, or the imprimatur of Israel’s governing authorities. He just acts! Then in an even more unsettling move Hashem approves of his unchecked zeal. Elijah as told in the narrative of I Kings 17 is God’s man. He is imbued with power and informed by the spirit of the Living God. He called down fire from heaven, and even wet down his own offering to further mock the prophets of Baal. Then when Elijah had totally humiliated the false prophets, he rallied the mob that had assembled to slaughter them in the brook Kidron. Sure he is the worker of many miracles, but in some way he becomes a miracle junky, elevated only by the hype of the moment and his next fix of power. This week’s Haftarah portion begins with Elijah’s unexpected exile. I suppose that Elijah had expected the apostate Ahab and is foreign queen Jezebel to turn tail and run when they got the bad news concerning their prophets, but instead Jezebel undauntedly threatened Elijah’s life. It is Elijah who turns tail and runs a day’s journey from Beersheba into the wilderness. Here he entreats God to take his life. At the first sign of failure he runs and whines. The apparent message; God failed him, he was the faithful servant, God is the unappreciative master. Elijah is good as long as God brings the goodies. Elijah presents himself here as religious narcissist, with an over inflated sense of entitlement. He deflects any and all responsibility. The narrative is actually infuriating, and I often think as I read this that if I were Holy One I might have granted Elijah his wish; but this is never how Hashem works (i.e. Jonah, Moses). It can be said that Elijah’s life is a three-act play. In chapter 17 he thinks he is somebody. In chapter 18 he realizes he is nobody. Then in chapter 19 Elijah finds out how much God can do with somebody who thinks they are nobody. Hashem sustains Elijah for forty days in the wilderness and then brings him to mount Horeb, to the very place according to tradition where His Glory passed behind Moses. The haftarah records an odd exchange between Elijah and God. Twice God asks Elijah why he is there. The answer appears quite obvious since Hashem’s angelic emissaries led him to that place. But Elijah responds instead by saying,
“I have been exceedingly zealous for Hashem, God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant, raised Your altars, they have killed Your prophets with the sword, so that I alone remain.” (I Kings 19:10, 14)
In this one statement Elijah deflects criticism from him, indicts all of Israel and accuses God of abandoning him. Elijah’s actions are strangely reminiscent of the following admonition from German theologian and pastor Deitrich Bonehoffer,
“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the Christian community with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”
It is clear in Elijah’s tone that if God were to act appropriately, then Ahab and Jezebel would be instantly deposed and the entire world would know it is due to Elijah’s supercharged ministry. But this is in fact not Hashem’s immediate plan.
Hymn for the Real Deal
It is at this time that the God of Israel teaches his disgruntled employee the real meaning of power.
Hashem said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Hashem, for the Presence of Hashem is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Hashem, but the Hashem was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Hashem was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Hashem was not in the fire. And after the fire came a small still voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
The message is clear. The Lord can break mountains, and shake the Earth, but most often His true presence is discerned in small and gentle actions. Elijah responds to the small still voice and wraps his face in his cloak. It is rarely the brazen and the vociferous that exemplify God like action but rather the quiet, the spiritual, the unassuming. The Spirit of God is the voice to our soul. This is God’s immediate revelation to the heart. Miracles sound the great bell of nature to call attention; but the Spirit is G-d’s voice to the soul. Sterness hardens; love alone melts. This does not mean that there are not times that call for bold and deliberate action, but most off true heroics are as quiet and unassuming as the small still voice that inspires them.
Elijah is then told three things that he will accomplish, anoint Hazel king of Aram, anoint Jehu king of Israel, and anoint Elisha a prophet in his own stead. Ironically he does not actually accomplish himself any of the three tasks, except for the appointment of Elisha. It is rather through the ministry of Elisha that his legacy is affected and the other two tasks are completed. Elijah learns that the greatest work of God is not accomplished through a single vessel, but rather is affected through the network of relationships that are inspired by the Spirit.
We often imagine true grit to be the fiery escapades of a self-reliant super hero. But nothing could be further from the truth. True zeal for God’s highest standards require that we subordinate our own designs, timetables, and needs, for the greater good of Hashem’s purposes. At times we seek deliverance, but instead God is offering peace. Other times we want excitement to arouse us from our empathy for the mundane, but instead we remain in the throws of the usual. How often do we ask for a word or a sign, but instead we are expected to learn the syntax of silence? At times we search for God’s intervention, but when we ask Him to remove our circumstances, He often desires us to change in the midst of them. When we respond to His gentle whisper though, He can remove our despair, give us a new purpose and direction, and make us partakers of His greater plans.