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When is Anger “Righteous”?

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Pinchas.

The first time I heard the story of Pinchas was at a teen study session at Camp Harlam, the topic of which was “Sex and Violence in the Torah.” Once I’d heard it, I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t learned it in Religious School.

While Israelites are encamped at Shittim, the men fall into worshipping Baal-peor, the local Moabite deity, a practice that seems to involve “intimate encounters” with the Moabite women. God tells Moses to publicly impale the leaders of this rebellion, and Moses relays these instructions to the judges of Israel.

In the meantime, a prominent Israelite takes a Midianite woman to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and “embraces” her in front of the entire community. Pinchas, a descendant of the high priest, takes a spear and stabs them both through the belly. This brings an end to the plague that had been ravaging the Israelites as a punishment for their apostasy.

In this week’s Torah portion, God praises Pinchas’ action: “ ‘I grant him my covenant of peace.’ It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because his took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites” (Num. 25:12-13).

While you might guess that this was a BIG hit with my teenage peers at the time, you could also imagine why I don’t regularly preach on it. It is difficult to connect to a story where the “good guy” is a vigilante. Pinchas serves as judge, jury, and executioner for the offenders. That’s not how we like to do business.

But when every single commentary I read this week was focused entirely on Pinchas, I realized that I couldn’t avoid this strange story any longer. In tackling the question of whether Pinchas should have been rewarded for his zealotry, we might also consider how our own anger can be directed towards righteous action.

One midrash supposes that Pinchas is rewarded for being decisive in response to a plague. The text suggests that Moses’ authority has been questioned in this moment, causing Moses to hesitate. It is Pinchas, therefore, who steps up to take action.  “[This fact serves] to teach you that one must be as strong as a leopard and as swift as an eagle to do the will of the Creator” (Num. Rabbah 20:24).

Even modern rabbis see the value in quick and decisive action. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes, “The zealot is the one who acts fearlessly, without hesitation, without stopping to ask permission. He translates the yearnings and guidance of the heart into bold decisive action. When the zealot inside us is not honored and given a place of respect within us, we fall into complacency, ambivalence or paralysis” (Torah Journeys 160).

When zeal leads us to quick and decisive action, we might embrace it. But rabbis in every generation have struggled with the kind of action that Pinchas takes. Some even suggest that this so-called ‘covenant of peace’ that Pinchas receives is actually a backhanded compliment.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (19th century) says, “In reward for calming the anger and wrath of the Blessed Holy One… God blessed him with the attribute of peace, that he should not be quick-tempered or angry” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, p. 169).

In other words: while in this situation, vigilante justice might have been the divinely-sanctioned response, this kind of violence will not be the proper tool of leadership in every situation.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (19th century) states that here Moses realizes that Pinchas cannot be his successor: “having seen Pinhas’ zealousness for God’s name … Moses thought, ‘A zealot cannot be the leader of Israel’” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, p. 170). Rabbi Shai Held adds, “A zealot for God’s honor can all too easily become a zealot for his own” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, p. 171).

In other words: It is not unbridled passion that makes us a good leader, it is what we are passionate about.

Rashi (11th century) carries this logic a step further, reading Moses’ request for a successor later in the parasha as a rejection of Pinchas’ zealotry. Rashi imagines Moses saying: “Master of the World…the character of each person is revealed to you, and no two are alike. Appoint over them a leader who will tolerate each person according to their own individual character” (Held, The Heart of Torah Volume 2, p. 170).

In other words: a leader needs to be someone who can understand the nuances of people, and situations, and act accordingly.

In recent weeks, we have seen debates over if, and when, it is permissible, or even effective, to be angry, even destructive, in the face of injustice. But the story of Pinchas reminds us that the question is not if we can be angry, or even when or where we can be angry, but how we use our anger to achieve just ends.

It is perhaps, no coincidence that, later in this same parasha, we see the Daughters of Zelophechad exhibit their own righteous anger. In this case, they use their words. But in order for those words to be effective, they need to be directed to the right place. They can’t blast the elders on social media, or sow seeds of distrust behind their backs. They have to face them directly, and demand what is owed to them.

In many ways, their publicly speaking up for their inheritance is no less bold than Pinchas, and it is clear that they are no less angry at their circumstances. They don’t follow gender norms. They don’t appoint a male advocate or write a letter. They aren’t “nice,” gentle, or demure. They don’t even say “please” (I even checked the Hebrew). They demand that their case be brought before God so that justice can be done. “And in doing so,” says Rabbi Shefa Gold, “they plant the seeds of challenge under the hardened soil of the status quo” (Torah Journeys 161-2).

It is also significant that, while Pinchas is a descendant of the high priest, a man of power and influence, one cannot be in a weaker position than the daughters of Zelophechad: unmarried, orphaned women with no male protector. When we are in a position of power, we must be vigilant about using that power for good. And when we feel powerless, we must remember that we still have a voice.

I spend a lot of time these days being mad at the world. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The Torah lays out both of these stories in recognition that, in the face of injustice, it is righteous to be angry. But the rabbis remind us that not all anger is equal. May our anger lead us to take decisive action in our communities, and to continue to demand justice from our leaders. And, someday soon, may we have cause to put our anger aside, and be blessed with the covenant of peace.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz