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This Week's Torah Portion: Bringing Peace Through Double Murder?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Pinëchas (Numbers XXV,10-XXX,1)

Last week’s parasha concluded with the shameful incident at Shittim, a locale in Mo’av. The Mo’avim joined with the Midyanim in implementing Bil‘am’s advice to bring Israel down (cf. Rashi after Sanhedrin 106a). In so doing, the Mo’avim abandoned their previously high moral standards and demonstrated their utter unsuitability to associate with Israel. Some weaker elements of Israel – ha‘am – succumbed to their blandishments, but when the rot began to infect the leadership – Zimri ben Salu, nasi’ of Shim‘on, an ish mibënei Yisra’él (XXV,6), i.e. one who should have been part of the Torah leadership – Pinëchas took action. Seizing a spear, he ran both Zimri and the Mo’avi princess with whom he had been cavorting through. G-d’s anger was slaked; the plague which had afflicted Israel in the wake of their apostasy came to an end.

In the first four verses at the beginning of our parasha Ha-Shem tells Moshe why: Pinëchas, He says, héshiv eth chamathi mé‘al bënei Yisra’él bëqan’o eth qin’athi bëthocham (“turned away My wrath from the bënei Yisra’él by carrying out My zeal among them;” XXV,11). As Rashi defines the word qin’a: “Every instance of the word qin’a implies one who strives to avenge something, emportment in Old French”). HaMëtargém, who translates Rashi’s Old French glosses into good Judaeo-German which we Yiddish speakers can understand calls emportment Eifer or Ereiferung, that is “zeal, eagerness”.

Lachén, Ha-Shem continues, Hinëni nothén lo eth bërithi shalom. Vëhayëtha lo ulëzar‘o acharav bërith këhunnath ‘olam tachath asher qinné lÉlo-hav vayëchappér ‘al bënei Yisra’él (“Therefore, behold I am giving him My covenant, peace. And he and his seed after him will have the covenant of eternal këhunna, because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for the bënei Yisra’él;” ibid., 12-13).

Pinëchas’ action seems to modern eyes an act of fanatical homicide. Though the verse is at great pains to show that Pinëchas was not a short-tempered hot-head, by relating his ancestry in v. 11, thus explicitly connecting him with his grandfather Aharon, the “lover and pursuer of peace” (Avoth I,12), the killing of Zimri and his consort was a shocking event, one which the Talmud characterizes as “not in accordance with the will of the Rabbis” (Yërushalmi Sanhedrin IX,7). As such, it seems an extremely difficult precedent to reward.

Therefore, let us examine the reward. This, as noted above, came in two parts:

1) Eth bërithi shalom. The rules of Hebrew grammar do not permit the oft-heard translation “My covenant of peace"; that would have to read bërith shëlomi in the Holy Language. What is the significance of the phrase’s odd structure?

Additionally, the word shalom is written with a vav qëti‘a, a letter vav which looks as though cut in half; what does that mean?