The last chapters of B’midbar are painful reading. Apostasy is followed by a terrible, final, killing plague. An execution takes place inside sacred space. YHVH praises the executioner, while the human scribes who have recorded the story for over two millennia protest by calligraphy.
Pinchas’ name is written with a smaller-than-usual yod in the same verse that YHVH praises him for his zealotry (Numbers 25:11). Why? Despite divine approval, the tiny yod, so it is said, signals us that the Jew, Y’hudi, is diminished by an act of violence. Or the yod represents Ya: The divine in Pinchas’ soul has been made weaker through his act of strength.
Even the word shalom in the next verse, in which YHVH promises Pinchas a b’rit shalom, a covenant of friendship, reveals the discomfort of our scribes. The vav in the word shalom is written in two parts. Peace achieved by destroying our opponents must, by necessity, be broken – insufficient and incomplete.
It is hard to find sympathy or understanding for Pinchas. Every year I relive the scene in my imagination; every year I recoil from it. A sword through the bellies of intertwined lovers, the lovers bleeding out their lives in a space meant to sanctify God’s gift of life. The image is harsh, brutal, unforgiving. YHVH announces that Pinchas’ act has prevented far worse. Pinchas stayed God’s hand: YHVH was ready (again) to destroy the nation of priests the Holy One had envisioned, dreamed for Godself. The children of Israel had become a wayward, ungrateful, unholy people.
What we reject so thoroughly is so often a sign of something we refuse to see in ourselves. Is there something in Pinchas’ fierce certainty that frightens me because it seems familiar? Do I know what it is to struggle, again and again, with human aggressions and cruelties and long, in one fell swoop, to simply strike a sword through what seems so obviously evil?
We live in a world filled with horrors. Children are filmed as executioners; other executioners freely murder children. In the Sudan, in the Congo, Ethiopia, and Burma genocidal programs unfold before us. Fanatics couple with each other, make unholy alliances, and destroy life; sacred places, sacred cities, sacred art and culture are hacked apart along with the peoples they belong to.
We are all, every one of us, capable of picking up a sword. If I know what is right, may I attack those I am sure are wrong? Blunt or written instruments are available easily enough — at hand and on the tongue.
In Jewish Renewal we speak often about blessings. We make them, we aspire to them, we speak about their construction. We talk, too, about being vessels for the Holy One. How can we clear our souls, act as channels for the Ruach HaKodesh?
In 2002, Tali Kutzen, then three years old, invented a word I was gifted last week by Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. Tali, Rabbi Hanna Tiferet told me, combined two words into one, making of “vessel” and “blessing” the word “blessel.”
To be a blessel in some way, each day: An idea for our time.
For any time. I imagine Pinchas and the children of Israel on the edge of the Promised Land, understanding that the task before them is far greater than their fears. I want to see them embracing the task and not their terror.
Ascend and make aliyah. Go forward and up, and if you fall, rise again. Be blessels and there will be no tiny yod to write into any of us, no diminution of Ya in our soul or Y’hudi in our hearts.
May it be so: In all time, for all time.