Last week's portion ends with Pinchas taking his spear and stabbing a Midianite woman and the Israelite man who brought her into camp. Pinchas follows them into their chamber, perhaps stabbing the couple as they begin their embrace. Their crime of passion is met by Pinchas' equally passionate response. They are not tried in a court or even brought before the Lord; instead, Pinchas takes matters into his own hands in an act of vigilante justice.
We learn in this week's portion that Pinchas is rewarded for his actions. God grants him a covenant of peace. Yet the reader is left with an uneasy feeling; will God reward anybody's spontaneous violence against something he or she doesn't like?
The Masoretes, the group of scholars who developed the scribal standard for writing Torah scrolls and our pronunciation of the words of the Torah, apparently also felt uncomfortable with this reward. The Hebrew letter vav in the word Shalom, from the phrase Briti Shalom –"My covenant of peace" — is written in the Torah in a broken form.
Instead of using a continuous straight line as one usually writes a vav, the Torah scribe is instructed — here and only here — to leave a space in the middle of the line, as if to remind us that any covenant born of violence is inherently broken or flawed.
Later in this portion, we are given an alternate model of justice, one more familiar and comfortable. The five daughters of Zelophehad ask Moses if they can inherit the land assigned to their father, who died with no male heirs. Moses brings their case to God, who comes back with the verdict: "The plea of Zelophehad's daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them." This decision becomes legal precedent.
A Plea Brought to the Highest Judge
This case reminds us of the ideals of our own legal system. The daughters make their plea, and Moses brings it to the highest judge. Though their father died of a sin, the daughters are neither discriminated against for that, nor because they are women. God hears their case, gives them a verdict, and it becomes precedent.
How do we reconcile this familiar, logical and measured administration of justice with the passionate, impulsive, vigilante approach that Pinchas takes? Is it better to take things into our own hands — reacting in the moment of passion — or do we appeal to an ordered court for fair trials, in order to establish precedents and make sure that every voice is heard?
In the case of Zelophehad's daughters, the legal system works. But we know that this is not always the case. Sometimes, we need to take our individual passions for justice and direct them toward that system to improve it and keep it accountable. On the other hand, while Pinchas' individual act of justice is rewarded, the broken vav in the Torah scroll suggests that this is done with some reservation.
These two models of justice, coming together in the same portion, remind us that we need to remain passionate in our pursuit of justice. But we must channel that passion into building systems that work for all of us, rather than every person being his or her own judge. The two impulses toward justice — passion and order — must exist together, as well as temper one other.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.