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Learning from Pinchas: What NOT to Do

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

This week’s parsha is named for Pinchas. Remember him? He’s the guy who was upset about the behavior of his fellow Israelites who were consorting with some of the local women. His solution? He stabbed one couple to death, and, was actually rewarded for his efforts. The inability to tolerate diverse points of view is as old as humanity itself. Resorting to violence as a way of expressing dissatisfaction is not a new phenomenon, though it feels to us like the problem has increased exponentially in our day.

The rabbis say, “kadma derech eretz l’Torah- good manners comes before Torah.” How quaint! According to Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, (Michtav M’Eliyahu Vol. 4), “One who does not appreciate the obligation to respect others lacks the attributes required for success in Torah [learning].” Respect for others is a fundamental principle of Jewish tradition. The Talmud records many controversies between the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. In virtually all of them, the opinion of Hillel prevails. Why is this? Because they took seriously and were respectful of the opinions of their opponents.

We read in Eruvin 13b, “For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halacha (law) is according to our position,’ and the other said, ‘The halacha is according to our position.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and those are the words of the living God, and the halacha is according to the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai. Furthermore, they even taught Shammai’s opinions first.” In other words, the house of Hillel was rewarded for the respect that they showed to alternate points of view, a rare trait in today’s contentious environment where there is no tolerance for perspectives that differ from our own.

When the Jewish people left Egypt and Moses needed to provide water for them in the wilderness, he was instructed to strike a rock and water spewed forth. After the people had experienced freedom and a new generation arose, God told Moses to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Why the difference? In a free society, to function successfully, we must learn to speak to each other, to find gentle ways to live together and not resort immediately to violence, whether physical or verbal. What worked for Pinchas in the Torah is clearly not working for us in the United States in 2018.

George Will offered his own, “Theory of Vulgarity in Our Contemporary Life.” In his column he referred to “today’s casual coarseness” which he described as a “facet of a larger phenomenon of which incivility is a part.” “Incivility”, he suggests, “is becoming normal.”   He suggests that the pervasive use of technology has cut us off from social connection, leaving us dissociated from any social context and resulting in pervasive boorishness. Certainly we behave on Facebook and Twitter in ways that we would never behave in person. Derech eretz kadma l’Torah- good manners are more important than our observance of halacha. We can’t claim to be religious people if we are intolerant and unkind.

The Seder Eliyahu Rabba (26) depicts God as teaching us, “My beloved children, am I in want of anything that I should request of you? But what I ask of you is that you should love, honor and respect one another.” The way we treat each other is the one thing which is out of God’s control and the ultimate expression of our humanity.

As we read the story of Pinchas taking the law into his own hands, we’d like to think that we have evolved past violence as the solution to our disagreements. It is okay to disagree. As Jews, we sharpen our wit and argue for sport. Yet, our own humanity is threatened when we cannot find ways to express our perspective with respect, honoring the humanity of those with whom we may disagree. Derech eretz, good manners, remains a fundamental Jewish value, and one worthy of our serious consideration.


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