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Parashat Pinchas July 26, 2019

07/25/2019 11:27:09 AM


Rabbi Yair Robinson

Parashat Pinchas

This past Wednesday, after dropping our son off at Camp Harlam, Marisa and I found ourselves with a free evening. So we went to the JCC pool for one of their barbecue dinners and to hang out. When we arrived we could hear live music coming from the pool deck, and when we got ourselves settled we found out it was a band of high school aged kids playing a whole bunch of classic rock. Like, nothing they were playing were things they would have known first hand. Dire Straits, the Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (thankfully, not Freebird), Bryan Adams, you get the idea. And here’s the thing: they were really good! Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by the idea of high schoolers playing rock well, but they did an excellent job. Technically very precise, very accurate, well performed and played. And as Marisa pointed out to me, they added nothing to any of the songs. They were perfectly accurate covers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it does beg the question—did they feel what they were playing? Did they, you know, get it? Were they emotionally invested in the music? Could they be? Or were they just trying to make sure they hit all the notes?

There’s an important question here, one of emotional content. As important as skills and facts and details are, without an emotional connection, it lacks the ability to move us, the ability for us to learn meaningfully. They played the songs very well, but at no point did their performance make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and without that, what’s the point?

And, in fact, we know that without an emotional connection, people will simply not learn, will not take action to correct or repair what is needed in this world. As an example, we can talk about food insecurity among children, cite statistics and trends, or we can read a newspaper article about a school district near Wilks-Barre that threatens families that haven’t paid for their children’s meals with involvement by child protective services. It’s not that we didn’t know that people were suffering, but it took a story like that to cause thousands of dollars of donations to flood in, donations that were, as we know, initially refused by the district.

It’s not enough for us to know the facts; we need an emotional knowledge as well. The Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote:

The idea that we have an overriding obligation to diminish cruelty, to make human beings equal in respect to their liability to suffering, seems to take for granted that there is something within human beings which deserves respect and protection quite independently of the language they speak. It suggests that a non-linguistic ability, the ability to feel pain, is what’s important, and that differences in vocabulary are much less important.

Rorty goes on to argue that those of us who are not suffering have an obligation to speak for the victims, especially when the victims are silenced. We give voice, we describe the pain that others are feeling, in order to move us toward empathy and action. Knowing the problem is not enough; our task is not just to know but to really know, to get it.

Which leads me to our Torah portion. Look, Pinchas is a complicated guy. We see his action, an action of violence, and we get stuck on the end of his spear like his victims. And the rabbis are conflicted about him too, arguing in the Talmud that they would not have sanctioned his choices. On the other hand, in the Midrash, the rabbis point out that Pinchas’ acts when others hesitate, and his actions are what saves the people from disaster. Everyone saw what was happening, and how Israel was descending into idolatry; everyone knew the facts, but only Pinchas was willing to act. Only Pinchas ‘got it’.

Which leads to us. Rarely are we faced with moments of complete moral clarity; usually, there is ambiguity. Facts alone will not help us choose what to do, and facts alone will not help our neighbors choose what to do. Talking about statistics is not the same as giving voice to suffering. Playing the notes well and correctly is important, perhaps essential, but so is making sure we make the hair on the back of people’s necks stand up.  We must be moved, and we must move others. In a way, that is what it means to be Jewish. Both to know, and to really know.

I pointed out before my reading that Pinchas’ Brit Shalom is written defectively; the word “Shalom” has a reduced vav, as if to say that the peace Pinchas is receiving is diminished by his actions. But we also see that Pinchas’ name is increased, he gains a yud in his name that wasn’t there before. Which is to say, PInchas gets it, emotionally as well as intellectually. Surely there are consequences to our actions. Certainly, we may worry about the outcomes and repercussions of what we do. But when people suffer, we can’t wait for the facts to save us; we must be moved by their suffering and act. Even if we don’t land all the notes.

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784