In the heart of summer, in the heat of summer, the Torah delivers to us a story of heated violence, an act of a zealous, passionate, prophetic heart. This story is about Pinchas, and it is a story that ripples through the ages. We’re going to linger on Pinchas, then travel forward in time to Elijah, way back in time to Abraham, and then forward again all the way to the present era.
Pinchas is the grandson of Aaron the High Priest. His grandfather will earn the title Pursuer of Peace, but Pinchas has another way. He perceives a crisis in the Israelite camp in the wilderness. The Israelites are straying from God. They are mingling with Moabites and Midianites, and mostly not remembering to devote themselves to the Covenant. Pinchas the pure of heart cannot abide this treachery, and violently slays an Israelite man and a Midianite woman.
The rabbis pair this troubling tale with the story of Elijah, a prophet during the kingdom of Israel many centuries later. He too, like Pinchas, is a zealous, passionate, prophet of purity. The Israelites in his time, as well, are straying from absolute fidelity to their God. And Elijah can’t stand it.
Let’s pause in the Elijah story and rewind time, back to the first prophet of Judaism, the great monotheist Abraham. His origin is a mystery. Out of nowhere he suddenly perceives that there is only one God, and that everything else we worship is a disguise for egotistical abuse of power. The midrash imagines him as a prototype of the zealous and passionate prophet, like Elijah after him. In the midrash, Abraham argues with the most powerful ruler on earth, Nimrod.
Nimrod says, let’s worship fire, to which Abraham replies, Why not water, which douses fire?
Nimrod says, Ok, water! But Abraham replies, Why not clouds which carry water?
Nimrod agrees and says, Ok, clouds! But Abraham replies, Why not the wind, which moves the clouds.
And Nimrod agrees again. Let’s worship clouds. Abraham continues, let’s worship Humans, who can use the wind.
Nimrod says, You are speaking foolishness. I worship only fire. Now I will throw you in its midst.
Nimrod cannot tolerate Abraham naming the truth of idolatry, which is ultimately a worshiping of the self, the ego, the human. And so he tosses Abraham in the fire. And what is fire, if not a metaphor for passionate violence?
Nimrod attempts to destroy Abraham’s passionate conviction that there is another truth besides human power. But Abraham is not burned by the fire. He emerges unscorched. Abraham’s zealousness proves that fire, that violence, is not the last word.
His distant descendant Elijah has trouble understanding this. In his rage at the Israelites worshipping Baal, he challenges the priests of Baal to a competition. Whose sacrificial offering on the altar will spontaneously combust because of prayer? 450 priests of Baal set up their offerings on the altar, chant and pray and beg and plead, and nothing happens. Elijah then sets up his altar, going one step further. He douses the sacrifice with water multiple times. Then he begins to pray. And despite their soggy situation, the sacrifices immediately burst into divine flame. And then Elijah murders all 450 of the prophets. Like Pinchas, like Nimrod, he thinks violence can get rid of the problem.
But Elijah’s story doesn’t end there. After his killing spree, he runs away to Mount Sinai, and crawls into a cave. There God’s voice beckons him to pay close attention. A fire roars by, an earthquake jolts him, yet the text tells us God was not in the earthquake or the fire. Finally after all of the commotion passes by, what remains is a kol demamah dakah, the sound of subtle silence.
Elijah is learning a lesson that Abraham first taught, that Pinchas failed, that we still struggle with today. Violence cannot solve our problems. Fire and brimstone cannot rid our world of fire and brimstone. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
In a world raging with heated words and violence, in a world that does contain darkness and sadness, we have a choice. We can respond like Nimrod, Pinchas, and Elijah, destroying what we do not like and ending up by creating more of what we do not like.
Or we can listen to the subtle silence, and look for the faint light of clarity and compassion, like Abraham did. We need to learn how to experience the anger and the frustration and the sadness as legitimate as they may be and yet not get consumed by them. Abraham stepping calmly through the flames beckons us to recognize truth and kindness as real strength, no matter how hard it can be to practice them in our lives.
May we commit ourselves this Shabbat to noticing and strengthening our impulses towards peace, practicing patience with ourselves and others, and attuning our ears to God’s clear yet quiet compassion.