Monday, July 19, 2010

Tisha b'Av (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Tisha b’Av, see the previous post (Devarim-Hazon), and the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and July 2009.

Are We Still in Galut?

Traditionally, Tisha b’Av and the days that precede it are times for reflection upon the meaning of Jewish history—specifically, the negative side of our people’s long and often difficult journey through the centuries. The fast of Tisha b’Av, marking the destruction of both Temples, and recalling any number of disasters that befell the Jewish people in Exile—from the destruction of the Rhineland communities of Speyer, Worms and Mainz during the First Crusade, through the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, the assaults of Chmielnicki and his mobs on the Jews of the Ukraine in 1648-49, the pogroms in Poland and Russia, and the European Holocaust (it is said that the deportation of Jews from the greatest single Jewish center in Poland, Warsaw, began on Tisha b’Av 1942)—is paradigmatic of the Galut, the condition of Exile. More than simply a geo-political or historical state, Galut was traditionally understood in almost metaphysical terms: the suffering of the Jewish people in this mundane world, and its alienation from their Land, were seen as counterpointing the exile of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence meant to dwell in this world. The absence of the Divine Indwelling, the potential for Presence in this world, signified, if you will, a distortion of the unity of transcendence and immanence symbolized by the wholeness and unity of the Divine Name. Exile thus means, also: all is not right in the world.

All that, it would seem, changed with the Return to Zion, with the Zionist movement’s renewal of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel somewhat more than a century ago; with greater force upon the creation of the State of Israel in 1948; and, some would add, even more so with the reunification of the heartland of Biblical lsrael in Judaea and Ssmaria, including the holy cities of Jerusalem, Shechem and Hebron, under Israeli rule in 1967. All these signified a series of steps towards Geulah, the long-awaited Redemption. Or did they?

There are at least two schools in Zionism which saw the reestablishment of Jewish life and sovereignty in the Land as changing everything about Jewish life, as signaling an end to the millennia-long exile. The official ideology of Religious Zionism saw the State as “the beginning of the blossoming of our redemption”—as initiating a process which will ultimately lead to the coming of Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the restoration of other institutions of the Torah—the Sanhedrin, the Davidic monarchy—as in days of old; if not in our own lifetimes, than surely in those of our children or grandchildren. Many passages in the thought of Rav A. I. Kook, and of other later Religious Zionist thinkers, point in that direction.

Historically, secular Zionism also saw the creation of the State of Israel as marking the end of the Exile and the Redemption of the people, albeit translated into secular terms: the ingathering of the exiles (or at least all those that wished to come, the implication being that all those who remained in the Diaspora were consciously choosing to assimilate and disappear as Jews), the creation of a “New Jew” and a new people, a nation living in its own homeland, speaking its own revived language, and living a “normal,” vigorous life; one whose culture would center, not around prayer and the study of ancient sacred texts, but upon art, music, literature, science, sports, industry. The nation’s past would be studied without illusions, using modern academic tools; the nation which would participate in the culture of the larger world—in short, a nation like all the nations, a secular nationality, proud and free, standing tall.

But are these the only models by which to understand our current situation? Many of us, particularly in recent years, find themselves reminded of the story of the Hasidic rabbi who, upon being told that the Messiah had at last come, opened his window, looked outside, and said: “No, not yet. The world doesn’t ‘smell’ any differently than it did before!” Much as we may love Israel, the atmosphere here doesn’t “smell” of Redemption any more than it did 50 or 100 years ago; indeed, if anything, many of the hopes of an earlier, more naïve time have been disappointed. Israel has turned out to be a human community like any other: people bicker and quarrel over petty matters; our leaders seem to run the gamut from mediocre to corrupt, with hardly a hint of greatness among the whole bunch (or, what’s worse, it would seem that those with any potential for greatness, or even a new perspective on things, are rapidly spewed out by the system). Nor, sad to say, has the secular vision of Israel developing a national identity which would be accepted easily and simply into the family of nations, been realized. Peace remains as elusive as ever, and one wonders how much of the blame for this state of affairs is that of the Arabs and how much is our own. On bad days, it sometimes feels as though I and my countrymen are living a Greek tragedy, in which initially minor faults and conflicts seem to be playing themselves out in a headlong rush to their catastrophic denouement.

What alternative is left? One might argue, as do many of the Haredim, that despite our settling the Land, despite our political autonomy and sovereignty, we are still in Exile. They might say: “An ancient halakhah [meaning: an eternal metaphysical rule]: Esau hates Israel.” That is to say, the ancient scourge of anti-Semitism is still alive and kicking, and has merely changed its object from the individual Jew or the “Jews” as an amorphous group in some Diaspora nation to anti-Zionism, to demonizing the Jewish state. Metaphysically, they would argue, we are still in Exile.

When I was younger I was taught to excoriate this viewpoint. Only the crazy fanatics in Neturei Karta and Satmar think that way! But more recently, I have begun to wonder: perhaps there is something to this view. One thing seems clear: that there is no assurance that we are on the road to “Ge’ulah” (Redemption). To the contrary: having reentered history, the Jewish people no longer has the luxury of viewing itself, as some thinkers did, as a trans-historical, metaphysical entity (thus Franz Rosenzweig, for example), but we are exposed to all the possible vagaries of historical events.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Zionism is religiously worthless or was a mistake; it is difficult, for example, to imagine the renaissance of Jewish culture taking place today in North America (however modest it may be, and however much the community as a whole may be beset by the threats of assimilation and intermarriage) without the existence of the State of Israel in the background, somehow providing American Jews, even if unacknowledged, with a sense of security and self-confidence that did not exist previously. But the meaning of Zionism is not a metaphysical one, not a change in the very essence of our situation, but must be viewed in a more modest terms: that we have a political culture, that our people has been reborn, for better ir worse, as a secular nationality. But the problems and difficulties of life, symbolized by the concept of Exile, are with us as ever.

Devarim -Hazon (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah and on Tisha b’Av, see the archives to this blog for July 2006, July 2007, August 2008, and July 2009.

Lamentations Rabbah: Midrashim for the “Black Fast”

The homilies on the scroll of Eikhah (Lamentations), read on Tisha b’Av, are among the most poignant and moving ones in the midrashic literature. The Sages probe here the meaning of the disasters that befell the Jewish people, both in biblical times and in their own day, in terms of both their theological and human implications. The midrash known as Eikhah Rabbati begins with a lengthy series of petihtot, introductory midrashim, not keyed to any particular verse, dealing with the overall question implied in the book’s title: “Why?” We begin with Petihta No. 4:

Rabbi Abahu began: “And they, like man, violated the covenant (Hosea 6:7)—this refers to Adam. The Holy One blessed be He said: I placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, and I commanded him, and he transgressed My command, and I sentenced him to expulsion and to being sent away, and I bewailed him: “Aikhah.”

I brought him into the Garden of Eden, as is said, “And the Lord God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden” (Gen 2:15). And I commanded him, as is said, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying” (Gen 2:16). And he transgressed my command, as is said, “Have you eaten from the tree which I commanded you not to eat thereof?” (Gen 3:11). And I sentenced him to expulsion, as is said, “and He expelled the man” (3:24). And sent him away, as is said, “And the Lord sent him away from the Garden of Eden” (3:23). And I bewailed him with Aikhah, as is said, “And He said to him, ‘Where are you?’ (ayekha)” (3:9).

So too, I brought his sons into the Land of Israel, as is said, “And brought you into a land of plenty” (Jer 2:7). And I commanded them, as is said, “Command the children of Israel” (Lev 24:1). And they transgressed my commandment, as is said, “And all Israel have violated your Torah” (Daniel 9:11). And I judged them with expulsion, as is said, “from my house I expelled them” (Hosea 9:15). And with being sent away, as is said, “Send them from My presence and they shall go away” (Jer 15:1). And I bewailed them with Aikhah, as is said, “How does [the city] sit solitary” (Lam 1:1).

On the simplest level, this section is based upon a word-play between the Ayeka (“Where are you?”) of Genesis and the Eikhah (“How?”) of Lamentations —two different albeit related words spelled with the same four consonants: איכה . But on a deeper level, this midrash is saying something about the human condition, drawing our attention towards the profound similarity between two experiences: that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and that of the Jewish people vis-à-vis Eretz Yisrael. In both cases the same cycle is repeated: the enjoyment of Divine abundance and blessing; the state of being commanded; disobedience; punishment and banishment; and Divine mourning. Adam here represents Everyman: this cycle, so it seems to me, is somehow universal, on a certain level perhaps even inevitable. This is not to be confused with the Christian doctrine of Original Sin: man is not sinful in his essential metaphysical nature, and it is certainly not the predominant feature of his/her personality; nevertheless, it is an ineluctable part of his condition, and something that every individual and every society must recognize and confront.

Two important points about this cycle: First, that being placed in Gan Eden/Eretz Yisrael goes hand in hand with being commanded. There is never a simple, paradisiacal, child-like existence, in which human beings enjoy a world of pure pleasure (the root meaning of the name Eden: עדן) without responsibility. This may have been the dream of certain romantic or proto-romantic thinkers and poets such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and William Blake: to return to the golden age before humankind spoiled things through its own over-sophistication and over-intellection, to live joyfully, naturally and nobly in a world without restrictions and hence without evil (before “priests in black gowns were walking their rounds, and binding with briars my joys and desires”). But Judaism sees the state of being commanded by God as going hand in hand with life in the world; even if all one’s needs are met in an effortless way, luscious baked goods growing on trees, the human being—at least beyond earliest childhood—is never here simply to enjoy the physical world. Imperatives (mitzvot), even if the single rather arbitrary command not to eat of the Tree in the center of the Garden, are part of the condition of adult human existence: to be human means to be responsible, to live in a world of norms and imperatives (this is a central idea even in purely secular, rational, cognitively-based ethical systems such as that of Kant). It is through the state of being-commanded that one finds one’s relationship to God—the flip side being that responsibility means being held accountable before God and being punished for disobedience.

The second point is that, while God, because of the nature of the Divine economy, must enforce His norms and exact punishment for disobedience—He also regrets that things must be this way, and he mourns man’s banishment from Paradise. Here the opening words of the Kinot, the book of elegies for Tisha b’Av, are placed in God’s mouth. Not only do the Jews, exiled from their homeland and bereft of their beautiful city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, weep, but so does God. “Woe is Me, that I exiled my children and destroyed my House,” He is portrayed saying elsewhere.

We now turn to the first midrash in the body of Eikhah Rabbah, whose chapters are arranged as a verse-by-verse exposition of the book:

“How does she sit solitary” (Lam 1:1). Three prophesied using the language of Eikhah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moses said, “How can I bear alone…” (Deut 1:12). Isaiah said: “How is she become as a whore” (Isa 1:21). Jeremiah said: “How does she sit bereft.”

Rav Levi said: This may be compared to a matron who had three companions. One saw her in her peacefulness; one saw her in her wantonness, and one saw here in her disgrace and ugliness. Thus, Moses saw Israel in their dignity and peace, and said “How can I bear alone their trouble.” Isaiah saw them in their wantonness, as said, “How is she become like a whore.” Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace, and said ”How des she sit abandoned.”

The three verses quoted here, all beginning with the word Eikhah, are so-to-speak the anchors of the readings for this Shabbat and for Tisha b’Av which follows it. The first is from the Torah portion, Devarim: while still in the period of the Exodus, with Israel along the path leading to realizing their destiny, this verse notes their problematic side—the people are quarrelsome, discontented (as we saw throughout the Book of Numbers), difficult, complaining, so that Moses wonders how he can manage to lead them. The second verse, taken from the prophets, is from the haftarah for this Shabbat, known as Shabbat Hazon (“vision,” from the first word of that reading)—a particularly powerful and stern prophetic admonition. The third is, of course the opening verse of the scroll of Eikhah (which, in some ancient customs, was read or studied on the Shabbat before Tisha b’Av, either in addition to or instead of its reading on the night of the fast itself). All three verses use the key word Eikhah, thus constituting a leitmotif for the entire season: the same word opens two other chapters of Eikhah, most of whose chapters are alphabetical acrostics, as well as quite a few of the Kinot, the medieval piyyutim of mourning, in dirge-like or elegiac meter, recited ion the morning of Tisha b’Av.

Again, the midrash notes three stages of the people’s behavior: the initial stage of peace and contentment, in which their own weaknesses may be seen, but are not yet in the foreground; then their wild and dissolute behavior (is there a hint that sin may simply be a result of boredom?) which leads to disgrace and the matron’s fall from favor; and, finally, its poverty and disgrace, after losing all they held dear and while surviving on a near-subsistence level.

Matot-Mas'ei (Aggadah)

With deep sorrow we record the passing of our teacher, Rav Yehudah Amital, founder and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and founder of Meimad. A memorial tribute will follow.

The Root of All Evils

This week’s double-parashah, one of the longest weekly readings in the entire Torah cycle, incorporates many diverse subjects, the common thread among them being the preparation of the people to enter the Land of Israel. One of the more interesting events recounted here has to do with the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who wished to settle in the plateau land of Transjordan (roughly corresponding to today’s Ramat Hagolan), which was suitable to the needs of their abundant livestock, rather than to participate in the settlement of the Land of Israel proper. Only after Moses criticized them severely did they agree to cross over with their brethren, do their share in the conquest of the Land, and only then return to the territory they wished to settle. The following midrashic passage conveys at least one aspect of this situation in succinct terms. Numbers Rabbah 22.7:

“And the children of Gad and the children of Reuven had much livestock, yea, very much” (Num 32:1). The tribes of Gad and Reuven were wealthy, and had abundant flocks and herds, and they cherished their money, and dwelt outside of the Land of Israel. Therefore they were exiled first of all the tribes, as is said “And they exiled the Reuvenites and the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh” (1 Chron 5:26). And what caused this to them? That they separated themselves from their brethren because of their property.

This little midrash warns against the dangers of excessive attachment to material goods. The needs of caring for their property—which consisted, as was usual in those days, of large herds of sheep and cattle—blinded them to the value of social cohesion, of responsibility to their brethren. Hence, they agreed to cross the Jordan and to participate in the struggle to conquer the Land only after Moses chastised them and pressured them in no uncertain terms.

The comments on this incident are often read as Zionist sermon: i.e., a negative comparison is drawn between the contemporary Jews of the Diaspora, who enjoy great wealth which keeps them from settling in the renascent State of Israel, as opposed to the inhabitants of the Land, who are willing to suffice with a more modes standard of living in order to live in their ancient land among their own people.

While this may have been true fifty years ago, it seems less true today, when Israel is an economically prosperous country, with a large and comfortable middle class, and flourishing industries in the areas of high-tech and medical technology. But more important, it seems to me that the message of this midrash is not so much that of dwelling in the Land (although that also clearly plays a role; the fact that the Assyrians, when they defeated and exiled the Northern kingdom in 721 BCE, began by deporting these two and a-half tribes is clearly related to their more vulnerable, peripheral geographic location), but their shortcomings in the areas of social cohesion and solidarity. It seems to be a rule of human life that, contrary to what one might think at first glance, the more wealthy individuals or society becomes, the less generous it is towards others—notwithstanding that the wealthy presumably have more “discretionary income” to spend on helping others. Poverty, or at least a modest, down-to-earth lifestyle, seems to breed mutual help and caring while, with notable exceptions, wealth often goes with “closing the gates to one’s home and celebrating festivals only with one’s own family and friends”—a practice lambasted by Rambam in Hilkhot Yom Tov 6.18). As the values of our society have become more and more material-oriented—as they seem to have become during the past few decades—they have become increasingly individual-oriented, with each man looking out for himself, and with even the most basic unit, the family, in serious decline. But that is a major subject for another occasion.

All of Torah is Holy

The next passage, from the Talmud, is more halakhic, or least a hybrid of halakhah and aggadah; I include it because it quotes a verse from the incident of the Gadites and Reuvenites. It subject is the institution of shenaim mikra ve-ehad targum: “Twice Scripture and once Translation.” That is: alongside the weekly public reading of a portion of the Torah every Shabbat morning in synagogue, as a kind of centerpiece for communal study of Torah, each individual is required to read the parashah to himself privately, following the same schedule. This reading consists of reciting the Hebrew text from the Torah twice and the Aramaic Targum of Onkelos once. Presumably, the Hebrew text is read because it is the essential thing, the source; the Targum, which translates it into Aramaic, the vernacular of ancient Palestine, helps those unversed in Hebrew to understand it, as well as adding an element of interpretation, particularly in the halakhic areas. Berakhot 8a:

Rav Huna bar Yehudah said in the name of Rav Ami: A person should always complete [reading] his chapters with the public, twice Scripture and once Targum—even [the verses] “Ataroth and Divon…” (Num 32:3).

The concluding phrase, mentioning the verse from our parashah, is brought to make the point that on must read, and translate, every single verse in the Scriptural lesson, even a seemingly trivial and unimportant verse such as “Atarot and Divon…”—i.e., a list of names of towns and cities in the area they desired to settle. There is some discussion among the commentators as to whether the obligation to read even such a verse refers to the text or to the Targum, but the underlying idea seems clear enough: that the entire Torah is holy, and the obligation to study applies equally to all of it (underlying this are also mystical ideas of the Torah as an organic unity, or even as an apotheosis of God Himself).

This idea also underlies the tension among different approaches to Torah study in the yeshiva world. There were those yeshivot which emphasized the study of a certain cycle of Talmudic tractates, mostly from the orders Nashim and Nezikin, rich in “lomdus”—intellectually challenging and complex concepts that provide the foundations of the structure of the halakhic system, or are of greater practical relevance. On the other hand, other schools—that of Volozhin, of Rav Meir Shapira of Lublin, or of Brisk, each in their own way—insisted on the importance of comprehensive study of the entire Talmudic canon, “from Berekhot to Uktzin.”

Pinhas (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to this blog at 6-15-06, and at July 2007, 2008, 2009.

“… Who was zealous for his God…”

Not infrequently, we find entire stretches of aggadic elaboration of one particular Biblical story concentrated in one place in the Talmud—if you wish, a kind of aggadic sugya. This is the case with the story of Pinhas with which our parashah opens (or, really, which bridges the closing verses of last weeks portion and the opening ones of this weeks: Num 25:1-15), which appears in Sanhedrin 82a-b.

To summarize: Pinhas, the grandson of Aaron, was outraged upon seeing a leading figure, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salu, brazenly engaged in sexual relations with a Midianite woman, Kozbi bat Zur, “in the eyes of all the congregation of Israel,” and Moses and Aaron seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Hence, he took a spear and killed the two of them in flagrante delicto; after it was over, Gods tells Moses that He was pleased with Pinhas’ deed which, among other things, served as a kind of prophylactic, that “assuaged my wrath against the Israelites, by performing My zeal among them, so that I did not destroy them in My zeal” (Num 25:11). Therefore, “I shall give him my covenant of peace” (ibid., 12).

There are several paradoxes involved in the story of Pinhas. (I leave aside the famous teaching of the rabbi of Izhbitz on this incident, one of the most noted places where he articulates his paradoxical doctrine of “transgression for the sake of Heaven”; see on him HY IV: Shelah Lekha; Korah [=Hasidism]): First of all, that he was offered a “covenant of peace” in reward for an act of violence. Second, the verse quoted above, in which variations of the noun or verb kin’ah are mentioned three times is interesting: the idea that a human being averts Divine fury against His people by himself performing an act of zeal—and that God is pleased with this. (Why? If the Divine anger was justified, why was God grateful that He didn’t have to act on it, but that a human being did so instead?).

Third, was Pinhas’ act lawful? Unlawful? Or did it perhaps belong to some ambiguous grey area lying between spontaneous zeal and a strictly halakhic response? This question is one of those considered by our sugya, alongside the hint that the leaders of the nation, Moses and Aaron, are shown as hamstrung, in a certain sense, by the halakhah itself. Finally, what is zeal anyway? How (if at all) does it differ from ordinary jealousy, such as a man might feel on seeing another man “stealing” his woman? How does it differ from anger / wrath / fury?

Rav Hisda said: If he [i.e., a potential zealot] comes to ask, one does not instruct him [to do so]. They also said: Rabbah bar bar bar Hanna said in the name of R. Yohanan: One who comes to ask, one does no instruct him to do so. Moreover, if Zimri were to have withdrawn [from the sexual act] and Pinhas killed him, he is executed on his account. And if Zimri turned around and killed Pinhas, he is not executed on his account, because he [the latter] is a pursuer [i.e., Zimri is considered to have been acting in self defense].…

He [Zimri] took her [Kozbi] by the forelock and brought her to Moses. He said to him: Son of Amram, is this one forbidden or permitted? And if you say she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry the daughter of Yitro [who was not Jewish]?! And the halakhah escaped his memory [Rashi: that his own marriage was before the Giving of the Torah, so the rule did not apply]. They all burst out in tears. Of this it is written, “And they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (Num 25:6).

It is written, “And Pinhas son of Eleazar saw…” (Num 25:7). What did he see? Rav said: He saw the case and remembered the halakhah. He said to [Moses]: “Brother of my grandfather: did you not teach us thus when you descended from Mount Sinai: ‘He who copulates with a Gentile woman, zealots [are allowed to] harm him’? He replied: He who dictates the letter shall be its messenger [i.e., you go do it!].

Here, Pinhas’ act is seen as simply acting upon a known, existing halakhah. But, as I explained in previous years (HY I: Pinhas [=Torah]), and as mentioned above, it is a very strange halakhah, one that must be executed spontaneously to be valid at all: if one stops to ask an authority what one should do, one is not allowed to do it. It is a kind of extra-halakhic halakhah: relations with a non-Jewish woman are outside the rubric of incest and other forbidden relations mentioned in Leviticus 18, a kind of sui generis category: it is both more serious (e.g., because a child born to her is not Jewish at all; see Rambam, Hilkhot Issurei Bi’ah 12.7-8) and less so (because outside of the “normal” rubric of forbidden relations). But the exceptions to the rules are themselves part of the rule: the Oral Torah is seen here as an almost infinite repository of traditions given to Moses at Sinai alongside the written Torah. In fact, the mishnah from which this sugya devolves contains a short list of three transgressions for which “zealots harm him” (m. Sanhedrin 9.6).

But Shmuel said: He saw that “There is no wisdom and no understanding and no counsel against the Lord” (Prov 21:31). Wherever there is desecration of the Name, one does not give honor to ones master.

R Yitzhak said in the name of R. Eliezer: He saw that an angel had come and was wreaking destruction among the people: “And he rose from among the congregation ad took a spear in his hand” (Num 25:7).

These two answers see Pinhas’ action in a different light: as an act of zealotry, of sacred passion, based on a decision made in an instant, in circumstances which left no room for asking questions, or even for reflecting or clarifying the issues, both because the stakes were very high (if Zimri went unpunished, all the people might think that what he did was acceptable, and would follow in his wake) and because there was no time. He needed to act immediately (while the two were still in the midst of the sexual act, as our aggadah notes further down, all too graphically: “he speared them in his male organ and her female organ”; a bit like God telling Moses at the Sea of Reeds: “Why do you cry out to Me? Just go!”—Exod 14:15). I think that the verse quoted from Pruverbs suggests that there are situation in which too much thinking (“There is no wisdom and no understanding, etc,”) can be a bad thing: there are times in life when one must make a direct, existential decision, before one’s own conscience, and in light of the omnipresence of God. This is very difficult, because in a certain sense, within Judaism Torah is everything; the idea of an extra-normative decision (made by what standard? by what guidelines? By one’s “gut instinct” as to what is right?) is enormously problematic. In this sense, Rav’s solution—that there is halakhah permitting zealots to act thus in this situation, but that Moses and Aaron had simply forgotten it—is very comforting, as it saves the notion of Torah as all-embracing.

All this is doubly problematic because of the nature of his decision: to take human life. And, one must add, it is an approach with very real, contemporary implications: we are all familiar with those who, in the name of religious principles, perform acts of violence to others, whether to protect the sanctity of graves from desecration, to protest against those who engage in “abominations” (knifings of Gay Pride demonstrators), or to insure the right to life of unborn fetuses by bombing abortion clinics. Yet at times, such drastic decisions seem the right one. Hence, our story ends by Pinhas receiving the blessing of peace (albeit a fragmented peace, with a hair-line break in the letter vav); moreover, with the rather strange comment that “he assuaged Divine wrath.”

Postscript (as they say in the midrash): This afternoon I watched a TV program about the subject of zeal (or is it perhaps fanaticism?), in which several of the speakers expressed the view that a truly religious person must be a zealot “because to be religious means to believe in something totally (implying that that excludes something else), and to be ready to act on one’s belief.” It wuld seem from this that the religious person, who believes in God’s unity, must resemble Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, who knows “one big thing,” rather than his fox, who knows “many little things”? But what of the mystic, who sees God’s presence everywhere, in every heartbeat of every living thing, and who knows (rather than just asking, as does William Blake) that the same God who made the gentle lamb also fashioned the “fearful symmetry” of the tiger “burning bright in the forests of the night.”