Pinchas the Candle Snuffer


I woke up at 4:45 this morning, to the sound of my two-month-old daughter crying and my wife sliding out of bed to reattach a fallen wub-a-nub. I grabbed my phone to check the time and did a requisite check of Facebook.

The first thing my sleepy eyes registered was a post from a friend in Jerusalem:
“Spent last night at Zion Square [in Jerusalem] with Hatnua Yerushalmit.,” she wrote. “Seeing the efforts of grassroots activists to connect Jerusalemites to one another in a deep and meaningful way filled me with hope. I woke to…tragic news. Ending an amazing trip with such sadness.”

The sadness she speaks of was a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount carried out as we slept, leaving two Israeli police officers dead. Haiel Sitawe and Kamil Shnaan were both Israeli Druze. Haiel, heartbreakingly, leaving behind his wife and three-week old son, Ramos.

In no uncertain way, our Torah talks to us this week. Pinchas, the namesake of this week’s Torah portion, is a zealot, a fanatic, an extremist. 

We pick up the story in the middle of a period in which the Israelites are seduced by idolatry and sacrilege. At the end of last week’s parsha, a young, religious zealot named Pinchas picks up a spear and murders a wayward Israelite and his Midianite companion. Unfortunately, God rewards Pinchas for this action and a plague that had killed 24,000 Israelites is lifted.

Our parsha begins this week by praising Pinchas for turning back the wrath of God and consequently sparing Israelite lives. And more than praise, God offers Pinchas a seemingly contradictory covenant of peace for his violent act. Why? And at what cost? 

Our tradition has struggled with these questions for millennia, and today that struggle feels more tangible than ever. Religious extremism has infected every religion in every country. It poisons the wells of wisdom and adulterates the actions performed in the name of those religions.

But our Torah teaches us something if we read between the lines a little bit. The end of Parshat Pinchas tells of Moses asking God for a successor, just after God had praised Pinchas for his zealotry. But Pinchas is not the heir apparent.

The Rebbe of Kotzk teaches that Moses saw Pinchas' zealousness and thought, 'A zealot cannot be the leader of Israel.' Therefore Moses turned to God to find an alternative. 

There’s a similar Chasidic teaching that: “Moses asked for a man among men; a man, not a superman; a man, not a burning zealot like Pinchas.”

So at God’s instruction, Moses appoints Joshua, which Midrash teaches us was like one candle lighting a second. No light is lost to the former.

But Pinchas is like a candle snuffer. His impromptu violence obfuscated the light of our tradition and his brand of zealotry could have extinguished its wisdom forever. Yet Moses knew that when he asked God for an alternate successor, and God delivered when he chose Joshua. Our eternal light is the grounded, consistent leadership of these two luminaries that rebuffs extremism.

In days of darkness, like today, May we never succumb to zealous or extreme passions and find inspiration in the calm leadership of Moses and Joshua. 

May our community spread peace, love, and friendship into our world and show empathy to those communities that extremism has invaded.

And may we have the strength to keep our tradition burning bright, even in the face of candle snuffers.