Who doesn’t think their situation is paramount? My past few weeks have been as exciting and exhausting as one can imagine, moving with three young boys during a pandemic. As we have begun to settle into our splendid new home and Jewish community here in St. Louis, I could not help but think of the journey of the 12 spies we encountered in our Torah portion (Parashat Sh’lah L’kha) a few weeks ago in comparison and contrast to Pinchas, this week’s portion.
Sh’lah L’kha provides us with two vastly different reports from the spies who were sent to “scout” the Land of Israel. They bring back ripe fruit, and 10 of the 12 report that it “flows with milk and honey.” Four verses later, they say, “But it is a land of giants. We felt like grasshoppers in their sight.”
Joshua and Caleb disagree with the other scouts, urging the people to go up and conquer the land. The people protest to Moses and ask to allow them go back to Egypt. Angered by the report of the spies and their reaction, God punishes them with 40 years of wandering in the desert. They are told the generation liberated from Egypt will not enter the Land of Israel. Only their children, led by Joshua and Caleb, will victoriously enter; the people who had suffered years of Egyptian slavery are condemned to die in the dessert.
What do the spies either say or do to bring on such a severe punishment? There are a variety of views.
Rabbi Obadiah Sforno, a16th century Italian scholar, suggests that when they mention giants, they mean to suggest that the climate of the land is so polluted that only the strongest among them will survive. A modern commentator,Rabbi Pinchas Peli, says that by observing that it is a land that eats up its people, the spies are conducting a demoralizing campaign deliberately deceiving the people.
In this week’s parsha, Pinchas famously attacks an Israelite man and Moabite woman because it is the Moabites/Midianites who have manipulated the Israelites into idol worship and “un-Godly” acts in the hope of causing their destruction. The plan almost worked until Pinchas’ action prevented calamity.
Moses reacted strongly and instructed the nation: “Assail the Midianites and defeat them, for they assailed you by the trickery (benichleihem) they practiced against you because of the affair of Peor …” (Numbers 25:17-18) Twelfth century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra translates the word benichleihem to mean “their wicked thoughts.” This is meant to tell us to blot out those with wicked thoughts throughout our world.
In an additional fascinating twist, Pinchas is mysteriously granted eternal priesthood by God. Why was Pinchas, who committed a violent, zealous act, given a “blessing of peace?” Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Sofer (1805-1879) explains that zealotry is an “extreme attribute which carries with it great danger” that must be used only in unusual circumstances. Great people recognize when and where to utilize zealotry – and when not to. Because Pinchas was the first biblical figure to commit a zealous act, he was also given the attribute of peace to counter-balance his actions. This, Rabbi Sofer writes, “serves as a lesson for the future, that in private and public life, the ways of peace are preferable to acts of vigilance.”
Noted psychologist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) observes that the affirmation of one's own life – happiness, growth, and freedom – is rooted in one’s capacity to love. We love productively only when we learn to love ourselves. We can only conquer “promised lands” when we have regard for our talents and believe in our creative powers.
The lesson from the past few weeks in our Torah is from our collective failure of self-love and self-respect. Only Joshua and Caleb, who refuse to see themselves as “grasshoppers,” are worthy of entering the Promised Land. Pinchas is given a blessing of peace, but he, too, must learn to find better ways to negotiate and treat those around him.
We are all going on different journeys in our lives. As we continue to navigate the uncertainty of life in the midst of the current pandemic, we can all find a positive silver lining and enter into our own personal Promised Land.