From a Torah perspective, which value is more important to the survival of society: peace or truth?
The Midrash describes how a thunderous debate broke out in heaven just as God was about to create the first human being. Peace said yes, Truth said no — the human being, subject to whims, inconsistencies, compulsions and the need to make compromises might learn to bring about peace, but could never survive the scrupulous standards of truth. Nevertheless, God flings Truth to the ground and proceeds to create the human being.
Certainly, the authority and majesty of truth needs no defenders. But implicit in this Midrash is the view that in our world — more crucial than the pursuit of truth — is the achievement of peace.
The tension between these forces is at the heart of this week's portion of Pinchas. The Torah records how one man publicly fornicated with Midianite woman. The depravity of the situation so enraged Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, that without hesitation he grabbed a javelin and with one thrust killed both the man and the woman. His act, we are told, stops the plague that killed 24,000 people.
At the opening of this week's portion, God expresses how Pinchas, by taking zealous action, turned God's wrath away and was given a "covenant of peace" and "an everlasting priesthood."
The concept of a "covenant of peace" after an act of murder is a paradox, but what I'd like to consider now is the unusual way the word shalom is actually written in the phrase brit shalom — "covenant of peace." If we look at a Torah scroll or even some printed texts, we discover that the vav (a straight line that resembles the number one) in the word shalom is split in two, making this vav the most unique in the entire Torah.
The split vav — and the flawed peace that it suggests was granted to Pinchas — may well be teaching us a crucial lesson concerning the relative values of truth and peace.
Pinchas' law was a law of truth. God rewards him with a covenant of peace, but the fact that the vav is split in the key word shalom indicates that there is something missing in the peace. God is reminding Pinchas — and through him all subsequent generations — that only by linking peace to truth can we emerge with true peace and unmitigated truth.
Later on in our portion, we find a vivid example of how the law of truth requires the muse of peace.
The daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moses with a claim that their father's share in the land will be permanently lost because he left no male heir.
Why should their father's name be erased? The daughters of Tzelafchad plead for the right to inherit their father's land. Moses then presents the case to God himself, who rules that "the daughters of Tzelafchad speak right, you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father's brethren, and you shall cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them."
Is it possible that when God gave Moses the Torah on Sinai, God forgot to fill him in on all the laws of inheritance?
Obviously, this defies reason. However, we might suggest that it was part of God's plan to intentionally leave this particular point out so that the claim of Tzelafchad's daughters would demonstrate an actual case where the strict letter of the law (male inheritance) must be further interpreted in order to make sure that the land remains within the family — that is, that daughters not be excluded from the apportionment of Israel.
Law speaks eternally only when justice takes into account the interest of peace.
Torah, after all, is the orchard whose "paths are paths of pleasantness and whose roads must lead to peace."
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.