Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Vagabond

The Echoes of Eden Project

Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Vagabond

On a lonely dark road, swift movements, footsteps, a thud… silence: a corpse.

Who was he? Presumably, the kind of person who is alone in the dark of night, the type of person who wanders from town to town, the type of person who does not really have a place he calls home; a vagabond.

His death may not necessarily be mourned. His friends and family have lost track of him, and he has been swallowed by anonymity. When people do see him, they avert their eyes. He reminds them of something they would rather not see: the human condition in a particularly compromised form. He reminds them of their own vulnerability. Most prefer not to look; some throw him a few coins and turn away feeling better about themselves. They move on, to their warm homes, to their loved ones. He, too, moves on - to harm’s way and the dangers of the street and the night.

It is easy to move on; we have almost no choice. We try to forget, until we hear about a victim. We are forced to face the knowledge that this corpse was once a human being, like ourselves, with the breath of God pulsating in his lungs. This man was a son of Adam, and like Abel, he was also lured by his brother out of the city to a field – and to his death. “The sound of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground,” God admonished Cain – and all of us. The nameless corpse cannot be disregarded; this crime cannot be ignored. The question is, do we hear this blood crying out? And if we do, isn’t it really ‘too little, too late’? Did we do everything we could to avoid this tragedy? Did we care for this stranger as we should have? Did we invite him to our homes? Did we find him a job? Did we try to help him heal his tattered life, or did his tattered clothes scare us? Did we simply turn away?

The Torah addresses the question of accountability in such cases through a rather elaborate ritual, a demonstrative process that is meant to be both educational and, it is hoped, transformative: The distance from the scene of the crime is carefully measured by rope, and the nearest town is accused of indifference, of criminal negligence that borders on complicity. Indifference contributed to this tragedy, and the town’s elders must wash their hands and declare their innocence - if their conscience allows it. Maybe this will prevent the next murder.

In a section of the Torah that discusses the large, important institutions of public life, the individual may be easily forgotten. Parshat Shoftim establishes the framework of the Jewish polis: the judiciary system and police force, the powers and limitations of kings and prophets. The inclusion of the guidelines for cases such as that of our vagabond specifically in this context teaches us a powerful underlying principle: The singular purpose of all of the instruments of power is to protect the individual, especially the weakest, most anonymous members of society. If we do not protect the weak and vulnerable, what type of society have we created? The king and all of his horses and all of his men are not merely symbols of civic or national pride. Their purpose is to protect the people, to create “top-down” morality. This is their mandate, their raison d’etre. This same parsha commands the kings of Israel to keep their true purpose in their sights at all times: the king must carry the Torah is in his heart and his arms. The Torah puts clear limits on pomp and circumstance, protocol and ceremony.  Responsibilities far outweigh the privileges of Jewish kings and leaders.

For many people, the essence of Judaism is its moral teachings; for others, ritual seems more important. I once heard my teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, illustrate the Jewish concept of the balance between these two aspects: It is well-known that priests are commanded to avoid contact with the impurity of death. They do not attend funerals or visit cemeteries, except for their closest family members. The High Priest may not defile himself even for those closest to him. However, The Talmud teaches that when the High Priest comes upon a corpse out in the fields, he is commanded to personally bring the body to burial. Even on the eve of Yom Kippur, when the hopes and spiritual aspirations of the entire nation are all focused on him and channeled through him, if he happens upon the corpse of a lowly, anonymous vagabond, the High Priest must defile himself, pick up the body and physically bring the person to a dignified burial. In what he admitted was an embellishment of the Talmudic passage, Rabbi Soloveitchik illuminated this basic principle of Judaism: the dignity of a man who may have been scorned, a man who no longer feels any pain, takes precedence over the most important participant in the most spiritually charged scene of the year, the Yom Kippur service. Human dignity trumps ritual. The nameless hobo is more important than the High Priest.

Sometimes we forget the great humanism that lies at Judaism’s core; sometimes we look away. Sometimes the vagabond is pushed just beyond the verge of our peripheral vision, and we never need think of him again, until……swift movements, footsteps, a thud, silence. A corpse.

Friday, August 2, 2013



God gives man choices; these are described as blessings and curses, or life and death. Remarkably, mankind has always needed to be encouraged to choose life. This seemingly automatic, rational choice has never been the “no-brainer” it should be. Why would any sane person choose a cursed path that leads to certain death over the blessed path of life? Apparently, the choice is somewhat more complicated, and our judgment curiously clouded. From time immemorial, the Tree of Death and its luscious fruit looked like the gleaming and attractive choice - more delicious, more desirable. In addition, a seductive, serpentine salesman hissed in our ears about how the fruit of this tree could solve all our problems, enlighten and empower us.
Those of you who rushed to consult your Bibles because you do not recall reading about a “tree of death” are partially correct: there was, indeed, a tree of death, presented by God Himself as the antithesis of the Tree of Life. Clearly, in order to allow man to make a choice between these two options, this tree needed a more palatable image, and so it was marketed and promoted as a “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. While many of us often think of this tree and its fruit as a viable option to the other choice, and conveniently refer to it in shorthand as a tree of knowledge, it was, in fact, the tree that represented a confusion of good and evil, a tree whose fruit distanced us from the source of life itself – clarity and understanding, proximity to God and holiness. This tree and its fruit are the physical representation of the choices that lead to death – of experience without understanding, of knowledge without wisdom, of information devoid of values. 
This choice, this path in life, has not changed much since the days of Adam and Eve: Even today, in the information age, the toxic cloud of confusion created by the amalgamation of good and evil casts a massive shadow that obscures our sightline to true knowledge and real life. Contemporary examples abound: In our generation, computer technology and the internet give us access to information in staggering quantity, but good and evil are often combined and confused. Is all the information we access reliable? Do we want our children to take in everything the internet has to offer? Can we ourselves, as intelligent and discerning adults, accurately evaluate or adequately assimilate all of the words and images we are fed? Is it any wonder that one of the most successful computer companies in the world (the creator and manufacturer of the machine on which I am writing these words) represents itself by a fruit with a bite missing – perhaps depicting the forbidden fruit?
What the Torah teaches us is not that the internet, or any technology, is evil or forbidden. The image of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the confusion that is to be found in many different aspects of human life. We are warned that the source of truth – absolute truth – is accessible to us, but the fruits of the tree of death continue to entice and attract our attention and imagination. Why are we attracted to this fruit? Are we hard-wired to self-destruct? Were we created with a death wish? Is the urge to experience the fruit of the ‘tree of death’ an attempt to anesthetize ourselves, to punish ourselves, or do we simply desire what we cannot have? Do we fancy ourselves to be gods? Perhaps all of these motives combine; perhaps the confusion of motives is one more result of having ingested, of continuing to ingest, the fruit of the tree that confuses and clouds truth and reality, and leads us astray from our life-source, to death.
As man becomes more and more sophisticated, as we obtain and attempt to synthesize more and more information, our need for clarity becomes more and more acute. All of our sophistication has not made us immune to confusion; in fact, we may say that the opposite is true. Now more than ever, we need a healthy dose of the fruit of the Tree of Life – of clear morals and values that can equip us to make sense of the glut of information that is the defining trait of modern life. Our choices often seem so much less cut-and-dried than they were in the Garden of Eden; our lives seem to be composed of so many shades of grey. Moshe’s message is that complex moral dilemmas can be distilled into one question: Which choice will lead me closer to my spiritual source of life? The Tree of Life, Torah and its immutable moral guidelines, provides this clarity. From the dawn of creation, evil has been dressing up, making promises. To choose life, we must focus on the word of God and not the slick salesman selling snake oil; his promises are empty, and the potion never works.
The choice that confronts the People of Israel as they prepare to enter the Promised Land is the choice that confronts us, individually and collectively, to this very day. Once again, two paths diverge from the junction at which we are poised. Will we repeat the mistakes of the past? Will we, once again, choose death? Moshe reminds them, and us, of the choices, and of our capabilities. He calls upon them, as he calls upon us, to rise to the occasion, to raise our heads above the cloud of confusion and not to lose sight of the Tree of Life, the moral compass with which we have been armed. Above all, Moshe reminds us that we are capable of making the right choice – but it is a choice. God, for His part, is rooting for us: “Choose life.”

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

With All Your Hearts and All Your Souls

With All Your Hearts and All Your Souls

All over the world, every day, for millennia, Jews recite the three chapters of the Shema. The first chapter is found in Parashat VaEtchanan, last week’s Torah reading. The second chapter is found in this week’s Parasha, Ekev.

At first glance, there seems to be quite a bit of repetition between the chapters. For example, the first chapter instructs us to “love God with all your hearts and with all your souls and with all of your resources”. The second chapter repeats this instruction, “love God with all your hearts and all your souls”. This apparent repetition suffers from a glaring omission: the obligation to love God with all of our available resources (often understood as monetary resources, possessions) is missing in the second chapter.

This problem is exacerbated by translation into English; in Hebrew, the difference between the two chapters is more apparent, and this is the key to understanding the omission.

The first chapter is stated in the singular and speaks to the individual, while the second chapter speaks in the plural, and addresses the collective.
What emerges from this observation is that the individual is bidden to love God with all of his or her resources, while the community does not have this obligation.

This distinction and its implications are closely related to the well-known yet often misunderstood concept of tikkun olam –“fixing the world”. The Mishna in Sanhedrin (37a) teaches that whoever saves one life saves an entire world. In Judaism’s value system, every life is of infinite value. Nonetheless, the Mishna in Gittin teaches that when redeeming captives, one should not “over-pay”:

Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value, because of tikkun olam. (Gittin 45a)

Prima facie, this seems to be a very strange application of “tikkun olam”, which many people associate with the “warm and fuzzy” side of Judaism, the Jewish impulse to make the world a better place. In this case, the very same sages who invoke the sanctity of life and the duty to uplift the world- put a price, a monetary value, on the life of a captive. By introducing such pedestrian concerns into the equation, they tacitly condemn the captive to death if the price for release is deemed too high!

The picture comes into sharper focus if we understand the concept of tikkun olam in this instance as an expression of macro-economic considerations. Apparently, the halakhic constraints that bind the community differ from those that bind the individual. Even something of infinite value has a price, and that price can be tangible, finite. Had this not been the case, the community as a whole would be obligated to spend all of its collective resources to save one life. And as cruel as it may sound, this would be devastating as a long-term strategy for any community.

Here, then, lies the reason for the glaring omission we noticed in the second chapter of the Shema: When the community is addressed, “all your resources” is missing. Communal resources are to be used for the betterment and preservation of the community as a whole, according to the wisdom and the conscience of its leaders. Pragmatism, a word (unfortunately) not usually associated with religion, is a positive guiding force, an overriding consideration in the calculus of resource allocation.

Judaism is a religion of myriad obligations. One of the messages of the second chapter of the Shema is another obligation: Simply put, we are obligated as a community to be responsible, to behave in a logical and pragmatic fashion, to spend our communal resources with sensitivity and reason. That is the true meaning of tikkun olam.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Is “One” a Number?

The Echoes of Eden Project

To a large extent, the Book of Devarim is a polemic against idolatry. Moshe instructs, cajoles, and attempts to inspire the people to follow one God. In the portion of VaEtchanan especially, there is a positive declaration, which is often described as the credo of Judaism - and monotheism: “Hear o Israel: God is our Lord, God is One.” On the other hand, in this same parasha we find a negative formulation of monotheism: “…for God is the Lord and there is no other aside from Him.”
Both statements seem to teach the same idea: monotheism, belief in one God. There are, however, some nuances that should not go unexamined. Rabbi Soloveitchik insisted that the translation of the word ehad, which is usually rendered “one”, should in this case be understood as “unique”. The distinction is not simply a question of mathematics; it is not that we differ from others in that we limit the number of our deities. This concise statement of our faith does not simply compare Judaism’s belief in “only” one God with the dualism or polytheism of other belief systems. According to this view, the declaration, “Hear o Israel, God is our Lord, God is unique,” has implications for the nature of that One God: The Deity is completely different, unquantifiable; God alone is sui generis, singular and unparalleled. This is our God: The One who creates and sustains the universe is not simply quantitatively different from polytheistic deities, but qualitatively different as well.
By definition, to create the universe means to exist outside of creation. This universe and all that it contains were created; not so the Being that created it all. The Creator transcends time, space and matter, and is not subject to any of the laws of physics.
This basic, irrefutable principle of Judaism leads to the second statement, “There is no other aside from Him.” At first glance, these two statements appear to teach the same idea, albeit in inverse formulations: there is but one God. All other “forces” or powers are not merely impotent, they are nonexistent. However, the kabbalists delved deeper into the significance of this seemingly redundant declaration. They understand this statement, or perhaps more accurately translate it, as “There is nothing other than Him.” Their insight may be expressed as a mathematical challenge: How is the creation of a finite universe possible, when the starting point is an infinite God? Simply put, adding a finite number to an infinite one will always yield infinity. One cannot add to infinity; the sum total always remains infinite. How, then, is our existence possible alongside an Infinite God?
The statement that there is no other aside from God is actually a profound mathematical, philosophical and existential statement: There is nothing outside of God. Nothing else truly exists. Reality is God; God is the only reality. While we may “see” many false gods, sense and experience many illusionary realities, there is in fact only one reality – the infinite God who cleared away a small corner of His infinite existence in order to allow our finite universe to coexist. Everything that exists within the finite universe does so at the will of the Infinite God. Should He cease to allow this to be so, our finite universe would be subsumed into God’s infinite reality.
The Jewish formulation is not that every aspect of creation is God, rather that God sustains every aspect of creation, allowing its coexistence with infinity. We can, indeed, perceive God in all of creation, but we, unlike the pantheist and polytheist, understand that what we are in fact perceiving is an expression of God’s will, and not some other life force.
For the believer, the existence beyond our own - that existence in which God does not limit Himself for our benefit - is the place of reality. It is infinite and unchanging; it is eternal and permanent. Our finite, fleeting existence is a mere echo of that reality. However, we have been given certain tools that allow us to access that reality: Torah study allows us to observe our own existence from the perspective of the Infinite. Prayer allows man to approach and speak to God, and forms the second side of the dialogue – for when we learn Torah, God speaks to man. Observance of the commandments allows us to develop our relationship with God and to connect with reality. Leading a life of holiness, individually and as a community, allows us to become a part of that other, infinite existence that we call eternity.
When man was first created and placed in Eden, the sense and spirit of the infinite which hovered in the Garden was more immediate and accessible. Our quest, ever since then, has been to seek the road back to Eden and to that experience of the Omnipresent God. Man’s search for God is the search for reality; nothing in our physical universe is as real as the relationship with God.
When we say shema we have in mind that God is, was, and will be; God is infinite. Saying the shema connects us with infinity. When we declare “ein od milvado” - there is none/nothing other than God – we recognize that God is reality. God allows us, despite our limitations and shortcomings, to coexist with His infinite and perfect existence. Only when we emulate and imitate this willingness to coexist with others in an imperfect world do we become closer to God. This is how we can bring a touch of infinity into our lives. This is how we “get real.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Price of Hatred

The Price of Hatred
Rabbi Ari Kahn
It is often quoted in the name of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook that just as the Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, it will be rebuilt due to baseless love. While this teaching sounds simple, it is in fact highly nuanced, and deserves more serious consideration.
The image that comes to mind when we hear the words “baseless hatred” is usually one of rampant, wanton violence, yet the precise definition of the hebrew phrase “sin’at hinam” leads us in a different direction altogether. The word hinam is more accurately translated as “free of charge” or “at no cost” in a monetary sense. Rather than hatred for no reason whatsoever, it implies hatred for which the price is somehow incongruous or out of balance. The problem is not that we dislike people for no reason; generally, we all feel we have very good reasons to dislike the people we do. We may have been hurt, insulted, or, worst of all, ignored, and we develop a healthy animus toward the offender as we defend ourselves and our tattered egos. The problem is that more often than not, our response is not proportional: We “overcharge” for these real or perceived wrongs. The price is not right; we pay back with interest, and, as we all know, the Torah prohibits usury. 
If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would be forced to recognize that at times the other person had no intention to hurt. Our own insecurity and emotional fragility leads us to interpret the behavior or speech of others as malicious, even when no such malice was intended. 
Here, then, is the dilemma: When Rav Kook’s teaching is understood as an admonishment against baseless hatred, most of us can, with absolute honesty, categorically state that we are innocent. On the other hand, when we reframe the question and ask instead if we have ever overreacted, if we are guilty of exaggerated responses to real or perceived slights, I am afraid that many of us can answer in the affirmative. We are, in fact, quite guilty, but we are blind to our own malevolence, simply because we think the other person has earned every bit of it. Whatever hatred we have for them is not “free”. 
As far as the “baseless love” (and not “free love”, which conjures up a completely different set of issues), we are taught by Rav Kook to love others even though they are undeserving. But is this the case? Are we not commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves? Our love for others is not “free” or baseless; it is grounded in the knowledge that every person is created in the image of God, and every Jew is a unique part of our collective, a beautiful piece in the mosaic of our peoplehood. By what right do we imagine that the love and support we should be giving is free? This other person is my brother, sister or cousin too-many-times removed. I am obligated by Jewish law to love and care for him, to worry about her and constantly consider how I can improve her life, to pray for each and every other Jew. They are me, and we are one. 
And therein lies the rub: We have somehow learned to convince ourselves that the hatred we feel is well-deserved, while the love we are obligated to feel and express is unearned and is given to the undeserving. Undoubtedly, this is what Rav Kook truly intended to convey.
Judaism teaches us to see our world from God’s perspective as well as our own. While we justify our hatred of others by focusing on the wrongs they have committed, from God’s higher vantage point, our hatred for others is sinat hinam – unearned, disproportionate, high-interest payback. While we consider our acts of kindness or gestures of love free and unearned, we are, in fact, fulfilling very specific obligations.
This dual perspective is discernible in this week’s Parasha: Moshe recalls the episode of the spies and recounts:
And you grumbled in your tents, and said, ‘God brought us out of the land of Egypt because He hated us…’ (Deuteronomy 1:27)
Rashi points out what should be obvious to us: quite the opposite was the case.  “He loved you, but you hated Him…”
Here we have the core of sin’at hinam – groundless hatred: lonely, frightened man, controlled by his own insecurity, is unable to feel God’s love. Man’s knee-jerk reaction is to lash out with hatred that is both baseless and unearned.
We remain a strange species, capable of love yet afraid to love. We fail to consider the true source and nature of love as our greatest natural resource, which grows exponentially the more it is “used”. It makes us wonder why we are so stingy in sharing it with others.
"If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love" Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Orot HaKodesh vol. 3, p. 324)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Shall Your Brothers Go To War While You Sit Here

“Shall Your Brothers Go To War While You Sit Here?”

“Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” With these words Moshe hurls a devastating moral attack against the tribes of Reuven (Reuben) and Gad, an attack that reverberates until this very day, and is used as ammunition against those who live in the modern state of Israel yet choose to take advantage of the service deferments.

As the Jews drew nearer to the Promised Land, they came into possession of lush grazing land, and two tribes expressed a desire to make their homestead east of Israel. In short, they sought to trade their future portion in the land of their forefathers for the green pastures across the border. For them, the Promised Land would remain an unfulfilled promise - not because God did not want to keep His promise, but because they were less interested in what the Land of Israel had to offer than they were in the lucrative opportunity they saw on the outside.

Their request was met with a rhetorical question, a response so full of moral outrage that its critical tone was unmistakable: “Shall your brothers go to war while you sit here?” The historic moment in time should not be overlooked: the conquest of the Land of Israel and the very existence of a Jewish national entity in the Land of the Patriarchs hung in the balance.

Upon closer inspection, their wish not to be a part of the “Zionist” enterprise is not really analogous to those who live in Israel today and choose not to fight. We have become so accustomed to hearing these words used out of context that we fail to take note of the differences: Those who live in Israel, regardless of their political orientation or the degree to which they take part in national or military institutions, do not fit squarely into the moral attack hurled by Moshe against the two tribes who sought to remain outside the land. When considered in context, Moshe’s charge against those who would choose the lush fields over the Land of Israel would be more appropriately directed at modern-era Jews who choose to remain in the diaspora rather than taking part in the rebuilding of the Land.

Moshe’s response to the two tribes’ request goes one step further, lending context and depth to his critique: “And why do you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over to the land which God has given them?  This is what your fathers did, when I sent them from Kadesh-Barnea to see the land.” (Bamidbar 32:7-8)

Moshe compares their request to the sin of the spies, perhaps the most nefarious episode endured during his tenure. He identifies the crux of the spies’ perfidy not simply in the rejection of the Land of Israel, but in the fear they instilled in the hearts of the nation. This fear escalated into panic and led to a massive breakdown of faith and purpose. The spies’ insidious report caused the nation to doubt their leaders, to lose sight of their goals. The entire community of Israel began to have second thoughts about the Land and their collective destiny. Can a similar charge be made against those who live in Israel today, even if they do not share the burden of protecting the Land and the People of Israel? I think not. 

With this in mind I wish to put forth a few suggestions:
First, to those living in Israel who do not serve: By any moral and religious logic, those who live in Israel must offer their full support to our soldiers and their sacred mission. Too often, demagogues get caught up in their self-serving ideology and attack the State, the government, and the I.D.F. as if they are all part of an elaborate plot designed to uproot Jewish values. The role of the army is far more prosaic; they are indeed involved in elaborate plot - to protect the lives and freedoms of as many Jews as possible. This is a responsibility that must be shared by each and every one of us.  Often old skirmishes and battles are conjured up, and present day reality is ignored, rather than focusing on old internal battles, they should treat themselves to a healthy dose of present-day reality. 

The same rabbis who attack the army and proscribe military service often hand down halakhic rulings that permit soldiers to break Shabbat laws when lives are in danger. It is a strange sort of cognitive dissonance that allows them to understand that our soldiers’ efforts are sacred acts, while at the same time labeling those who perform this life-saving labor as impure. Is a soldier who risks his own life for the protection of his brethren no more than a “shabbos goy”? In point of fact, today’s I.D.F may have more religiously observant officers than secular ones. The iconic brave kibbutznik of the past has been eclipsed by the brave kippa-clad young man.

Among the rabbis who saw things differently, two come to mind: one was my revered teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Gustman, who, upon seeing the graves in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, declared, “Kulam kedoshim”, “They are all holy martyrs.” Another is Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. When a student asked the Rabbi’s permission to take a short leave from the yeshiva in Jerusalem to travel to pray at the “graves of the righteous,” Rabbi Auerbach told him that he need go no further than Mount Herzl, to the military cemetery.

These great rabbis recognized that our brothers who went to war and did not return were holy. It behooves all those who remain in yeshiva and devote themselves to learning Torah, to bolster the spirit of those around them and aid in the national effort in any way they can. First and foremost, they must recognize the sanctity of the sacrifice others are making on their behalf, and the holiness of our brothers who have fought to secure their freedom to build and populate great centers of Torah learning in Israel - especially those who paid for these blessings with their lives.

As for those who have chosen the diaspora as home: Make sure that your choices do not instill fear in the hearts of those who dwell in Zion. Be active in your support: Send your children to Israel. Allow them to serve in the army if they express the desire to do so. Remember that this moral fortitude and bravery is the culmination of a proper education.
Consider the Israelis who give three years of their lives to military service, and then continue to disrupt their normal routine for a month or more each year for decades thereafter. Keeping that time-frame in mind, create a structure for donating resources or time to Jewish causes, and strengthen the spirit of those who live in Israel. Israel should be more than just a destination for vacations. It is the inheritance of all Jews, and a part of our personal and collective destiny.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Parshat Pinchas -Fanaticism

Rabbi Ari Kahn
Pinchas was a fanatic. As anyone raised in western society will tell you, fanatics are bad, and the only thing  worse than a fanatic is a religious fanatic. We have been raised on the axiomatic, nearly religious certainty that religious fanaticism is the root of all evil, the underlying cause of every conflict around the globe. And yet, the biblical account of Pinchas’ response to  Zimri and Kozbi sends us some confusing messages.

Zimri and Kozbi, each a member of their respective societies’ elite, make a very public display of their defiance of religious and social dictates. In what may be called the archetypical act of religious fanaticism, Pinchas takes the law into his own hands and commits a double murder, yet he is rewarded with eternal  priesthood as well as the “covenant of peace”.  If ever there was an ironic award, this is it - or so it would seem. 
Zimri and Kozbi do not seem all that strange to us. We, too,  live in a time and place in which boundaries are constantly re-examined, redefined, and often discarded.  Religion is under siege, in retreat. Popular culture exhorts us to “just imagine” a time when there is no religion – such a time, we are assured, will be utopian. Without religion there will be no more war, peace will break out all over.
This axiom is self -evident, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary, namely, the entire “body of work” of the 20th Century, when arguably more people were killed than in any previous century – perhaps more than throughout all of history combined  (some have put the number at 262 million victims), yet most of these lives were not taken in the name of religion. Socialism, communism, National Socialism (also known as Nazism), the most infamous among recent history’s murderous movements, all had strong roots in atheism and paganism and were, for the most part, ideologically opposed to  religion.  Nonetheless, we tend not to let the facts interfere with our preconceived notion that it is religion that creates strife and is the real casus belli. Modern thinkers prefer to simply disregard other “minor” factors, such as greed, jealousy, hatred and tribalism.
Looking at the bigger picture, it would be more accurate to say that what lies at the dark heart of  war is the human desire  to control others – economically, politically,  socially and sexually .
This is where religion can be the solution and not the problem: Religion creates boundaries. Religion makes value judgments.  Right and wrong have objective meaning. Religion not only makes these judgments, but expects that mankind live up to these values. Both compliance and sin are significant  and conscious choices;  the optimistic view of Judaism is that man has the greatness to practice self-control. Without this expectation, Judaism would be an absurdity.
Judaism has great expectations of man. Man is in the image of God, and has the capacity for godliness, for greatness.  However, unlike the pagan view of greatness, Judaism teaches that real victory is in the battle with one’s own desire to control others and to satisfy egotistical desires.
The self-restraint that lies at the core of Jewish values is what Bil’am saw as he observed the Israelite camp from afar. He saw boundaries, the respect for privacy that was the basis of community. He saw religious and social demarcations that served as the basis for unity. Instinctively, he understood that a People with such self-control could not be cursed. Their essential character was deserving of blessing, and was a source of blessing for others.
When Bil’am raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling at peace by tribes, the spirit of the Almighty was upon him...‘How good are your tents , your tabernacles, Israel...(Bamidbar 24:2-5)
Rashi: He saw each tribe encamped individually without mixing in with the others, and saw that the openings of their tents did not face one another so that one would not peek into another’s tent. The spirit of the Almighty was upon him, and his heart did not allow him to curse them.
Zimri and Kozbi left little room for misinterpretation:  theirs was an act calculated to break the religious, cultural, moral, social and personal boundaries that kept the nation together. Pinchas understood the threat they posed, foresaw the devolution of society that would result from dismantling all the boundaries. He knew haow a world without boundaries would look: like an endless battlefield for individual power. Pinchas was, indeed, a fanatic- for peace. For his fanatical defense of the boundaries with which peace is maintained, God rewarded him with what he most desired: “And therefore I give him My covenant of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:12)

Pinchas is also no stranger to us : Like him, we are often faced with the challenge posed by moral relativism that threatens to tear down the boundaries and dilute the values upon which our lives are predicated. Like Pinchas, we, too, must fight in order to achieve peace. At times, the battle is an internal struggle for self-control and self restraint; at times we must face up to external threats. May God bless us with the wisdom, vision and strength of Pinchas, and bring to fruition the Priestly Blessing of peace in our private and public lives.

For a more in-depth analysis see

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