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A Still Small Voice - Parashat Pinchas

A still small voice.

A soft murmuring sound.

A thin voice of silence.

Whatever the translation of kol d’mama daka (I Kings 19:12), this is a sound that in our raucous, fast-paced, over stimulated society, we rarely get to hear. Yet this sound is one of the most powerful weapons against zealotry and violence.

This week, as we carry the burden of the raging violence between Israel and Gaza, and as we mourn the deaths of innocent young men, Israelis and Palestinians, I am searching our holy texts for guidance and comfort.

The Torah portion for the week, Pinchas, and its accompanying haftarah portion rose to the challenge. Pinchas was an Israelite whose violent act of zealotry earned him not only the lasting title of this portion but also a “covenant of peace” – brit shalom. What an astonishing juxtaposition!

Likewise, the haftarah recalls the prophet Elijah’s escape from the murderous rage of Queen Jezebel, who pledged to annihilate all of the prophets in Israel. Elijah, like Pinchas, is a zealot, who angrily chastises the people because, “I am moved by zeal for the LORD” (Numbers 19:14). Yet we remember Elijah at the Passover seder as the harbinger of Messianic times when all people will live in peace. Another astonishing juxtaposition! 

A zealot is someone who is willing and eager to fight for what they believe. Some commentators, equate Pinchas and Elijah, as if they are the same person. Both Pinchas and Elijah exhibit dangerous, even violent, tendencies out of devotion to their principles. Pinchas upheld the stringent ban on cohabiting with the Moabites, which had kindled divine anger, causing a plague. He prevented the complete annihilation of his people. But Pinchas acted rashly, without consulting Moses or anyone else.

Elijah also adhered to a rigorous understanding of right and wrong, accusing the Israelites of sinning against God. He successfully defended the Israelite God against the priests of Baal, then ran away in fear for his life. Full of despair, Elijah escaped to the wilderness and, in a reckless moment, asked God to take his life. 

Is it possible to have compassion for the zealot? As we mourn for all victims of extremism, of uncontrolled hatred and rage, can we find room to understand people like Pinchas and Elijah?

What appears as anger and hatred may have its roots elsewhere. When we read carefully, we learn that both men acted out of fear and despair. Pinchas feared for the lives of his people; Elijah feared for his own life.

Yet both men become men of peace. How is that possible?

When the Torah says that Pinchas received a brit shalom, a covenant of peace, some commentators describe this as the antidote to his violent nature. 

When Elijah flees into the wilderness, he looks for God to console him over his victimization. He quickly learns that, while he served God in anger, God’s own desire is for calm. After looking for God’s Presence in a wind that shattered rocks, and an earthquake, and a fire, Elijah hears the kol d’mama daka, that barely audible voice. When he isolates himself from the people who threaten him and from the forces that seek to do him harm, Elijah discovers a quiet place, a place where he can listen. This is the beginning of his transformation from zealot to peacemaker.

Jews have a tradition that Elijah appears at the celebration of brit milah, the covenant of circumcision for every newborn boy. It is customary to display a decorative kiseh shel Eliyahu (Elijah’s chair) as part of the ritual. (Progressive Jews today would extend that to the naming celebrations for girls as well.) The Midrash explains that the self-righteous prophet needs to witness the arrival of every baby and to be present with the parents, family members and friends in order to cultivate his forgiveness. Since he angrily charged all of Israel with sin, he must train himself to become more open-hearted, since all of us are imperfect. That is the real transformation.

In the current situation there’s not a lot that we can all agree on. As David Horovitz wrote in The Times of Israel on July 7:

They started it? They’re worse? They all hate us? Well maybe they did, and maybe they are, and maybe they do. But those arguments don’t help us. Those are not arguments that are going to save our society.

No matter how we interpret events or who we blame, those words cannot bring peace. We need to recognize that within each of us lies a Pinchas/Elijah, a soul filled with pain and horror, blindly devoted to our most fundamental beliefs and principles. How can we enter into a covenant of peace if our hearts remain closed?

Which leaves me with this simple human plea: listen for the still small voice. Listen to the Other. Listen with compassion to your enemies, whether they are enemies within or without. Listen and don’t speak. Listen.

The times call for constructive acts. The times call for real human contact. Pay attention to the extraordinary acts of kindness between the grieving families. Pay attention to the courageous words of shared sorrow between enemies. These will not make the headlines, but they are the only hope we have to create a groundswell that cries “Enough!” Listen.

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