Thursday, July 14, 2011

Peace as a Meta-Value

After zealously defending the honor of God and the Jewish people in an act of extra-judicial killing, Pinchas is blessed at the beginning of our portion with the covenant of peace. The blessing bestowed upon the zealot seems at odds with the profound violence of his act. Does the juxtaposition of a graphic act of killing and the promise of peace not seem vulgar? Upon further reflection, however, it may become clear that this vulgarity is a function of our general misunderstanding of peace as a value.

Also, another curiosity exists in the verse. Pinchas is promised a "covenant of peace". Should the verse not say "blessing of peace"? What is the meaning of this covenant? The same question applies to the mishna. The mishnah states in Uktzin: אין לך כלי שהוא מחזיק ברכה אלא שלום, שנאמר ה'--עוז, לעמו ייתן; ה', יברך את עמו בשלום. There is no vessel that holds blessing better than peace. Rabbi Tubi of Kerem B'Yavneh asks: why is it that peace is referred to as a vessel that holds blessing? Should not peace be the blessing itself?

The standard working definition of "peace" is the absence of conflict or violence. Nations that do not make war are at peace. However, upon closer examination, this definition breaks down. Would we call it peace, if World War II had come to an end of hostilities with the Axis powers destroying all opponents? That would be a cessation of war, but most would agree that their intuitive sense of what peace means would not be fulfilled by this outcome. What is it, then, that we really mean when we speak of peace?

Rabbi Hirsch points out that peace is not simply the absence of violence. It is rather the completion experienced when the world is right - when the world is on the path to fulfilling its mission to God. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits discusses the purpose of the world in his God, Man and History. Free will is given uniquely to Man in order for humanity to take responsibility for what goes on down on earth. Only Man can choose to do good, go against their basic animalistic nature and live the higher moral and ethical life. Man is charged with the task of conquering with his free will his nature, and submitting his inclinations for evil to the good commanded by God.

Three times did man fail. Adam and Eve's fall in Eden was the first. Then, sin of the generations leading up to the flood caused God to try again, giving the world a fresh chance at holy greatness in the seed of Noah. In their third failure at the Tower of Babel, God decided to install a priestly nation, the Jews, to shine the light of the moral and ethical greatness and purpose of existence upon the rest of the nations.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the purpose of the world, we can answer the first question. If humanity had given the Nazis control over the world, there may have been an absence of war. However, there would certainly not be a concert of the real world with the word of God. Hitler made it his mission to destroy the two curses he said the Jews bestowed upon humanity: the curse of circumcision and the curse of conscience. Hitler wanted the social darwanistic, Nietzschean "might makes right", power of the sword to rule the world. This proposed destruction of Godly ethics and the destruction of the Jewish people would have cast the world into a shadow of darkness from which it would not have recovered. Without the light of the Jewish Torah and its ethical teachings, there would be no hope for humanity. And so, our intuition is right to tell us that Nazism over the world would have been far from peace. It would have been peace's antithesis. It was the world's fight to the last drop of blood against Hitler which was, paradoxically, its only chance at true peace.

And in the same vein, it is precisely the act of Pinchas, violent though it was, that brought about a semblence of true peace. Zimri's action was a direct rebellion against the kingdom of God and the very purpose of Israel's earthly charge. And it was Pinchas who stemmed the tide of that rebellion, and brought the Jewish world back into harmony with the commands and ethics of God.
As for the second question: why does God give a "covenant" of peace to Pinchas? A blessing is a gift that is uncontingent. However, a covenant implies a challange to the receiver, that he deserve and live up to it.
Each individual human is a microcosm of the world entire. Just as peace is a meta-value that provides correct and appropriate expression of the various and diverging values beneath it for the world, so does peace act as a meta-value for the individual, categorizing and applying various character traits appropriately for the service of God. Peace is not a value in and of itself. It is a meta-value that acts as a harbor for the other values and emotions that Man subscribes to, providing appropriate dock for each one. When one finds the appropriate use for each value, he is able to maintain stability in the face of diverse situations and conditions.

This is the meaning of the covenant of peace that God forges with Pinchas. Pinchas has demonstrated, by his violent actions on behalf of God’s honor, his ability and willingness to use the value of קנאות, zealotry, at the appropriate time. However, God needed to teach him of the balance that is necessary in life. Zealotry was appropriate here, but elsewhere it will be inappropriate. Therefore, God gave Pinchas the priesthood. כהונה is a mantle that requires the priest to be totally and unreservedly at one and in love with his brothers. Indeed, a kohen must feel this specifically, every day, when he blesses the nation באהבה. By making granting Pinchas the priesthood, God added to his natural zealotry the necessary counter-balance, meek willingness and fore-bearance to all. With this equilibrium, Pinchas is able to enter into covanental שלום, complete wholeness resulting in true peace, with God.

Aharon, the archetypical priest, is a shining example of the opposite personality. He was so loving, so full of חסד, that he participated in the Golden Calf with the people, all the while trying desperately to temper their sin. His overflowing love and willingness to give in was his Achilles heel, and is the only sin which we find him explicitly culpable for. To balance this value, God commands that it be him and his tribe who kill those who worshipped the idol. Perhaps this is also a reason for the prominent place the priest has in the array of war according to the Torah. Pinchas and Aharon represent one value that must be tempered with the other in order to bring about שלום, peace. Indeed, when they reach their perfection, each is an archetype of peace – Aharon the רודף שלום, and Pinchas, he who is granted בריתי שלום.

The same lesson is furthered in our haftarah. Eliyahu, prophet par excellence, leaves Jerusalem, his ministry largely failed. He finds himself in a desert, and, at a moment of personal and ministerial crisis, he calls out to God, declaring himself a קנאי and wishing for death. God provides him food and water, and then reveals a prophecy to him: a whirlwind, then an earthquake, and finally a consuming fire. Yet God is not to be found in these. In the stillness that follows, a small voice is heard. The metaphor is clear: sometimes, it is not in aggrandized, noisy and powerful displays of zeal, but in meek willingness to fore-bear in which the path to God can be found. However, Eliyahu is too much a zealot, and he again wishes for death. God realizes that Eliyahu is no longer suited to his ministry, and directs him to choose a successor.

The background story in this haftarah is recognizable in the later prophet, Yonah. After prophesying to Ninveh, he goes to the desert, where he asks, as did Eliyahu, for death. God provides him a tree for sustenance and shade, and then allows a worm to devour it. Again, the lesson teaches the prophet to recognize the need for mercy as opposed to zealous justice only. In contrast to Eliyahu, Yonah learns the lesson, and the Yalkut Shimoni completes the story that the prophet leaves unfinished, saying “he fell on his face and pleaded that God treat the world with mercy!”

The contrast of Aharon and Pinchas in the Torah and Eliyahu and Yonah in the Nevi’im certainly bear out the lesson of שלום. It is not enough to be zealous or meek. One must be both, at the appropriate time for each.

The lesson of שלום is not a simple one. We may find zeal and fore-bearance touted as the correct response to various occasions strewn throughout Jewish history and Rabbinic literature. God Himself is sometimes portrayed acting with strict justice, as when punishing the city of Sodom, rejecting the pleas for mercy from Avraham, and at other times, He is portrayed as acting with tender fore-bearance, such as when he waits patiently for the repentence of the idolatrous Ninveites. God is zealous for his honor when he kills the sons of Aharon when they offer a forbidden incense-sacrifice, and yet on the other hand, he is so self-effacing that he permits His holy name to be erased to reconcile the estranged husband and wife. We can often lose sight of the larger picture of peace as a meta-value throughout the year, as we become preoccupied with the values that make it up. It is common for us to feel the strength of mercy and its all-encompassing purification during the High holidays to be the only way to ever act, and yet then to feel the absolute zeal of Pinchas when we read the parasha of Balak a few months later. How then, in the face of contradictory evidence, are we to decide the true path to tread, in order to correctly apply the zeal of Pinchas and the self-effacement of Aharon appropriately, so that we may be inductees to the covenant of true peace?

When conflict arises, and we must engage, we may ask ourselves a critical question: would showing fore-bearance to the adversary destroy the moral and ethical fabric of our Torah? Would it destroy the soul of mankind? This question needs to be asked in every era and its answer may be different depending on the time. If the answer is yes, then there is no choice but to zealously set forth in battle, adorned with the values of Pinchas. For if we do not, the kindness and meekness we display will simply be the cause of the downfall of the task of Judaism in this world, to let the light of the Torah shine forth for mankind. If, for example, we had taken Gandhi’s advice to German Jewry in the 30’s and commit mass suicide as a non-violent protest to Hitler’s designs, the very ethics for which the world was created would be gone. If the allies had decided that, in order to avoid war at all cost, they would submit to the Nazi plan and allow Germany to rule over all, perhaps the most immediate immanence of war would have been avoided for a time; however, this would not bring peace, this would not bring a situation where good and God’s will prevail. On the contrary, it would bring darkness and savagery, and all that the morality of Torah sets about to eradicate from the world. With this possibility on the horizon, the task of Judaism and indeed, of all that is good in humanity, is to fight to the last drop of blood. Even within this just war there is peace, the peace of mind of a world that will not bow to evil, but stands up for God and good.

To use a more contemporary example, we may consider the “peace” process being shoved down Israel’s throat for the past 20 years. When an adversary explicitly states his desire to destroy your nation, fore-bearance and meekness, concessions and compromise is wrong. Giving in to this enemy irretrievably negates your very right to exist, and by extension, your claim to a moral code that is necessary for the world. As the midrash says, those who fight against Israel are really using Israel to fight against God.

Back to our portion, Pinchas’s killing of those who, at a critical time in Israel’s history, sought to destroy the morality and purity of the Jewish nation, was an act of peace precisely because inaction would have shattered those ideals without which the world is not worthy of existence.

On the other hand, if the answer to our critical question is no, and fore-bearance will not endanger the values of the Torah, then it is possible to utilize the value of חסד, meekness and fore-bearance, and Aharon’s technique of winning over an adversary with love.

In fact, far too often, we may find ourselves arguing with others and sure of our pure intentions, defending God’s honor, when it is in reality only our own honor which is at stake. These situations are ones where the proper path is that of Aharon, leaving the zeal of Pinchas for other times.

The story of Pinchas is here for us to learn from. While zealotry has its place, we must make sure that it is appropriate. Far too often, we stand upon principle when the only principle is personal pride. In order to be people of שלום, a nation of true peace, we must internalize the complexity of each situation, and choose the correct value. When we do so, we make ourselves privy to the true brotherhood of God, where each thing is done for the sake of heaven and with the purpose of bringing about the ultimate purpose, a world run in harmony with God’s plan, a covenant of peace.