Pinchas: Exercising our Privilege

(Given at Kehillat Moreshet Yisrael, Jerusalem)

A few years ago, I read an “historical novel” by Howard Fast called My Glorious Brothers.  Its narrator – Simon ben Mattathias – tells how his father killed a man to prevent a religious outrage, and the subsequent history of their family’s struggle to preserve Judaism.   

Their fight, which began in 166 or 167 B.C.E., led to the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish nation in Israel.  [Just yesterday I visited the stone ruins of a large public Hasmonean building at Beit She’arim in the Galilee; its distinctive architecture, still clearly visible, is discussed in the Talmud.] 

The book so inspired me that I began presenting its motif as a one-man play at Chanukah.  I prepared a script and rented a costume.  Speaking as Simon ben Mattathias, I told the story of my family, emphasizing the great sacrifices that we had made on behalf of our fellow and all future Jews.   

For my presentation's finale, I solemnly looked around the room and asked that each person examine their life.  Could he or she honestly say to me that it was worthy of my family’s and our followers’ sacrifices?  If not, I asked for rededication to the values and future of Judaism. 

This week we read Parashat Pinchas.  At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Pinchas killed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman as they engaged in flagrant, immoral sex. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G-d rewards Pinchas and all of his descendants with His eternal “Covenant of Shalom” and the priesthood for zealotry in G-ds defense.  

But our tradition is troubled by zealotry.  We are deeply aware of the dangers of people and groups doing things “in the name of G-d.”  Still, it’s not my current intention to evaluate Pinchas’s act of double-manslaughter.  Rather, what strikes me, at this point in my life, is what also struck me about the brothers Maccabee and about many other figures in Jewish history.  They were leaders. They stepped forward. They dedicated themselves to a great cause. They endured severe hardships and were willing to give up everything, including their lives, if necessary, for their cause. 

Pinchas reminds us of the need to take a stand and to decide what our life is about.  To be conscious of our most important values and to know for what cause or causes we are willing to devote ourselves, even our very lives, should that be necessary.

I certainly don’t wish to glorify violence or extremism!  But I do mean to warn against setting the bar of our lives too low, or indeed, not setting one at all.  I mean to caution against squandering irreplaceable years without living in a way that attempts to actualize our priorities.  To live a life that that doesn’t even seek to set an example for others. 

Now is the time to think hard about what we are doing with our lives and what we should be doing.  Now is the time to set or renew goals, to make plans, and to start working them.   

High-profile and motivational speaker Rev. Robert Schuller used to say: “Even a dead fish can float downstream!”  Parashat Pinchas reminds us not to float downstream!  Not to succumb to routine, nor settle for living a comfortable “good life.”  A “good life” is a life of purpose, not one of privilege -- unless by “privilege” we mean the great privilege of being able to choose how we will live a life of purpose.  

The vast majority of people who have ever lived, and who live today, have had no such privilege of choice; their struggle has been and continues to be for economic (and, too often, physical) survival.  We are the extremely fortunate ones; we can decide what our lives will stand for and can act accordingly.  What a waste if we don't excercise this privilege by deciding and acting!  

Of course we’ll experience difficulties, frustrations, set-backs, and even knockdowns.  Since when is accomplishing worthy things easy?  Fish swimming upstream must fight for every inch of progress.  They must not only  push against the rushing current but encounter rocks, branches, waterfalls, pollution, bears, and fishermen!  Many do not reach their ultimate goal, but that does not deter the rest.  They are driven to do something great.  

And so must we be driven.  

Think. Decide. Act. 

Shavuah tov from Jerusalem! 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb