Rabbi Rafi Cohen ©
My family and I were at an overnight camp for two weeks this summer – Ramah Sports Academy, located in close-by Fairfield, CT – where I worked as a rabbi/educator, my wife worked in the office, and my children were enrolled as campers. It was by my count my 18th summer with a Ramah camp including summers spent as a camper and staff member. No matter the camp I have attended in my lifetime or how many summers – as a camper or staff member – it continues to be the case that camp can be intense. Relationships are intense; games and activities can be intense and are often competitive. Time at camp has its way of intensifying and concurrently we can feel disassociated with the world outside of camp. One day can feel like a few days, one week like a month, and if you go to camp for two months…an eternity.
I also discovered during my years at camp that as scenarios play out in the social spheres, it’s best to respond carefully and, when possible, calmly and rationally. Handling situations otherwise can have disastrous consequences. From young junior counselors to seasoned veterans and program directors, if you are at a summer camp, it’s always best to have all of the facts of any situation before addressing the circumstances head on. This is not how Pinhas handled things at his summer camp. He killed two people – one Israelite and one foreign woman – recorded in the previous week's Torah reading, and Parashat Pinchas tells of his reward from God.
How is it that the vengeance that Pinchas carrie out earned him such a reward? A story is told of a wealthy man, R’ Zev, known for his compassion toward others. Although he was a tough businessman, he always found a place in his heart for the less fortunate who often called upon him for help. One day, Shimon, a man who had reneged on many obligations in the past, called R. Zev asking for a large loan. Knowing that no one else would lend him any money, R’ Zev decided to help him. He hoped that Shimon would appreciate the fact that he had helped him when no one else would, and later show that appreciation by paying back the loan on time. That unfortunately was not the case. The due date came and went without even a word from Shimon. After more than two years passed, even R’ Zev’s inexhaustible patience finally reached its limit, and he approached Shimon to ask for his money. Needless to say, R’ Zev was completely shocked when Shimon denied ever having received any loan from him. “How dare you deny the loan! I helped you when no one else would! This is how you ‘repay’ me?” R’ Zev demanded angrily. Shimon remained steadfast in his calm denial, leaving R’ Zev no recourse besides summoning Shimon to a Rabbinical court. The judges ruled that in the absence of any document or witnesses, Shimon had the option to swear that he hadn’t received any money from R’ Zev and could thus be exonerated. R’ Zev was confident that even Shimon wouldn’t have the audacity to swear falsely but he once again miscalculated. Shimon calmly swore that he hadn’t borrowed any money. At this point R’ Zev lost it… “I don’t care about the money but how can you swear falsely! Don’t even the Ten Commandments mean anything to you? You are a disgrace to yourself and to all Jews!” With that, R’ Zev stormed out of the room. For months R’ Zev was still furious. “I don’t care about the money but how could he swear falsely?” he would say time and time again.
Years passed, and the incident was forgotten. One Shabbat afternoon, R’ Zev went to the front of the synagogue and shared a startling announcement. “A number of years ago, I had an incident with Shimon. Following the ruling of the judges I criticized Shimon publicly. Just as I defamed him publicly, I am now asking for his forgiveness.” Stunned, immediately following the service, people ran to R’ Zev, to ask what prompted this apology after so many years. He then told the following story. “This past week I was traveling on business through a far-away town. I had some extra time to myself, so I sat in on the Rabbinical court which was then convening. As I sat and listened, I realized that they were judging an almost identical case to the one that I had brought against Shimon a few years ago. A man who had admitted to other people that he had borrowed money from a certain wealthy individual was now denying it. The judges ruled that he could swear and be free from any obligation. No one thought he would swear but he did. I watched it all happen and it didn’t faze me.” “As I was traveling home a thought occurred to me. This man had also violated the same commandments that had upset me so much years ago but now it didn’t really bother me. Why had it upset me so much with Shimon but not at all with him? I realized that it really was my money that was infuriating me all along. I kept saying that it was the false swearing and the desecration of Hashem’s name but I now see that it really was simply the fact that it was my money. For that I had no right to speak so harshly against him.”
Pinchas, the verse states, was “kano et kinati.” He avenged God’s honor. There wasn’t even a hint of his own personal interests in mind. He rose above the confused mixture of good and evil that possesses many of us. Most of us must learn to set aside our personal affairs and be attentive to what is at times a desecration of God’s name (or other human beings) that results from some of today’s affairs. We must be “kano et kinati," jealous for God without involving our own petty dealings and concerns.
Rabbi Moses Coucy was onto something and this type of critical commentary occurring within the text shows the value of patience and not rushing to decisions rather to be careful and thoughtful in our actions. Taking time in one’s actions and not rushing to deliver a reward is a positive outcome and works in some settings such as camp.
What of the reward Pinchas received? It wasn't necessarily the perfect prize for today's campers. The phrase briti shalom (my covenant of peace; Numbers 25:12) is written in every Torah scroll in a most careful and unusual fashion. Containing four Hebrew letters: shin, lamed, vuv, and (final) mem, the word shalom is written with a broken vuv – a straight line broken in half; there are two discrete sections. The Rabbis in the 8th and 9th centuries codified that the letter vuv in the word shalom be written this way as two half stokes, unconnected. By writing the word shalom with a broken vuv the message is conveyed that peace created by zealots and acts of violence will never be whole and complete. True peace is not created through violence and fanaticism. The text would have us understand that true peace, wholeness - shlemut - is achieved in a more peaceful and patient (sorry, lacking a better word at the moment) manner. Taking one's time, not too long, to respond in a thoughtful manner is likely the more peaceful and productive approach.
is Director of Graduate Admissions at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A parent, partner, teacher and coffee enthusiast (I've attempted to home roast coffee), Rafi enjoys helping individual students and families find Jewish meaning in their lives.