Covenant and community

by | Jun 20, 2013 | Torah Thought

The Torah portion, Parashat Pinchas, refers back to a singular act of zealousness occurring at the end of the previous parasha, that of Balak. After many Israelites had strayed away from the God of Israel and involved themselves in religious rituals of the Moabites, induced according to the text by the Moabite women, a public impaling of the Israelite “ringleaders” took place. The text of the Torah states that as people were weeping in front of the Tent of Meeting over the loss and deaths, that an Israelite man openly brought over a Midianite woman and apparently either went into or in front of a special chamber. The particular transgressions, earlier by the people at large, and secondarily by this particular couple, may or may not have involved sexual transgressions—there is a great deal of scholarly debate based upon complex linguistic derivatives and concordance analogy arguing either way—but what is agreed upon is that a lack of faithfulness to the singular worship of the God of Israel was demonstrated. Pinchas, the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, in other words, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, took a spear and stabbed both of them through the belly.

In the ensuing reading then, entitled “Pinchas,” this act of extreme zealousness is received very favorably by God and handsomely rewarded. Pinchas is to receive God’s “pact of friendship,” and in addition, in Num. 25:13 we read that: “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.”

As they say, that was then; this is now.

In our modern context, we would not greet either a married or unmarried interfaith couple in this way! We would first recognize that the law of the land takes precedence over religious practice should there be a conflict, and we certainly would not want to be arrested for murder! Although those last sentences were written somewhat “tongue in cheek,” that is in reality only because we recognize that the modern Western values of respect for individual liberty, freedom of choice for religious worship and identification, and respect for the basic and inalienable rights of all people with regard to such freedoms are not only inherent in our legal and constitutional codes, but ingrained in our social consciousness as well. This, unfortunately, in the reality of our modern world, is not the case in all places and cultures.

In the Western civilized world during the last two millennia, Biblical precepts have become ingrained into the legal, moral, ethical and social traditions of all modern countries. Although this history was marred by periods of outright persecution and anti-Semitism, nonetheless at the present time, some of the best friends and passionate defenders of the modern state of Israel and the value of the Hebraic heritage represented by the survival of the Jewish people have been those in the Christian community.

In our local community then, it was heartwarming and deeply appreciated to have an event such as the CUFI (Christians United for Israel) program held at The Rock Church on April 23. The recognition and value of the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people dating from Biblical times and valid and valued though perpetuity was emphasized by all of the Christian religious leaders present. The joint program presented, involving participation by members of both the local Jewish and Christian community, was strikingly refreshing and spiritually elevating. It serves to underline the deep bonds of solidarity we have with the Christian community both in celebration of a Biblically inspired common religious and ethical framework for life as a whole, and for the unique historic, philosophical, legal, social, strategic and international interests shared by the United States and Israel. To see and experience these interests celebrated and shared with our Christian community will remain uplifting and spiritually inspiring.

In the beginning of this article, the previous Torah portion, “Balak” was referenced. You will recall that Balak’s intention as the Moabite king in appointing Bilaam the local soothsayer, was to curse Israel. In the end, despite moving from location to location, Bilaam was only able to deliver increasing levels of praise for the beauty he saw in “Israel’s tents” and peoplehood.

While the world has more than one billion Muslims today, most of whom we hope to embrace values of recognition for the uniqueness and role of Jews and a Jewish state, there is a considerable faction within their world that does not. Whatever the percentage of this sub-group is, known increasingly within the Muslim world as “fundamentalist Muslims,” or “Islamists,” they do not accept or pretend to tolerate the construct of values referenced and elucidated above. We can only pray that the equivalent of a Bilaam could arise from their midst in order that a truly wider concept of a global community could exist. This altered reality would recognize the legitimacy of both the Jewish and Christian covenantal relationships with a universal God they profess to give loyalty to. In so doing, our world would take a gigantic step towards the realization of one universally recognized necessary condition for messianic times to take place – the absence of war.

On a personal level, it has been a great joy for me to have had the opportunity during the last two years to serve as interim Rabbi for Temple Emanuel in Virginia Beach, and in so doing to have the opportunity to meet so many of you in the wider Jewish community of Tidewater. You have collectively built a model Jewish community and infrastructure, in my opinion. Although my formal work in my present capacity ends at the end of July, I look forward to seeing you and remaining a part of the community until such time as I secure a Rabbinic position elsewhere. I wish to express my deep gratitude and appreciation to all of you who have shared your community with me so warmly, sincerely, and lovingly.

Rabbi David Barnett, Temple Emanuel