Please enjoy a d’var Torah this week from Meira Silverstein. Meira loves language, music, and Judaism. She has been a musician-in-residence at Camp Ramah Wisconsin for the last five summers. A violinist by training, and a rabbi’s daughter by birth, she has played concerts all over the world from Carnegie Hall, NY, to a small church in her grandparents’ hometown in South Korea, and, most recently, from her living room in Baltimore, MD. She graduated from Yale School of Music with a Master of Music in Violin Performance. Previously based in Minneapolis, Meira played frequently with the Minnesota Orchestra while serving as Adult Learning Coordinator for Adath Jeshurun Congregation. She is currently a professional freelance musician in the Baltimore area where you can catch her playing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Meira and her husband, clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, have two children, who also play the violin and love Camp Ramah Wisconsin.
What’s in a Name: Reflections on Parashat Pinchas
by Meira Silverstein
There is no doubt this week’s parashah begins with a bloody and uncomfortable moment. In fact, uncomfortable is a euphemism. It is zealous, angry, vengeful and…rewarded.
Pinchas, enraged at the immoral behavior of the Israelites in the desert, slays an Israelite chieftain’s son and Moabite princess in flagrante. It’s dramatic, it’s described in vivid detail, and the fallout is eternal priesthood and a covenant of peace for Pinchas and his descendants. Hardly the expected moral outcome of an action rooted in emotional excess.
The Rabbis of old express a deep ambivalence about this story.
On one hand, Pinchas was acting with zeal (ק.נ.א) on God’s behalf. By acting thusly, he joins a club with other Biblical figures like Elijah the Prophet, who zealously slaughtered prophets of Baal in God’s name; King David, the legendary warrior poet who zealously waged war in God’s name; and Matityahu, the priestly patriarch of the Maccabees, whose zeal inspired a successful rebellion against the ancient Greeks (and gave us latkes).
But none of those other stories draw our attention to the plight of the victims of zeal, whom in this case are named explicitly afterwards:
וְשֵׁם֩ אִ֨ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל הַמֻּכֶּ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֻכָּה֙ אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֔ית זִמְרִ֖י בֶּן־סָל֑וּא נְשִׂ֥יא בֵֽית־אָ֖ב לַשִּׁמְעֹנִֽי׃ וְשֵׁ֨ם הָֽאִשָּׁ֧ה הַמֻּכָּ֛ה הַמִּדְיָנִ֖ית כָּזְבִּ֣י בַת־צ֑וּר רֹ֣אשׁ אֻמּ֥וֹת בֵּֽית־אָ֛ב בְּמִדְיָ֖ן הֽוּא׃
“The name of the Israelite who was killed, the one who was killed with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of a Simeonite ancestral house. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.” (Numbers 25:14-15)
There is power in the utterance of a name.
George Floyd, Derek Chauvin, Amy Cooper, Breonna Taylor. We name people we want to remember. The utterances of those names can affect the physical world (protests) and change political narrative (racism is alive and well). And for those who are too terrible to name, we curse, ״יִמַּח שְׁמוֹ״ “may his name be erased.” Not forgotten, but even deeper. Recorded and then removed.
Which brings us to the flip side. Because how is murder ever justifiable? Killing is expressly forbidden as per the defining set of laws that created the Jewish People out of many tribes of Israelites. Thou shalt not kill. Because as the Talmud teaches us, to destroy a life is to destroy a world. Because even as the Rabbis logically try to justify Pinchas’s behavior, they also teach that this action falls into a category of laws called halacha v’ein morin kein, “law that one may not teach.” Had Pinchas asked the religious authorities for permission to execute his action, even with all the justifiable zeal in the world, the answer would have been no.
What then is the takeaway?
Naming has the power to change the world. And just as we name people, we name the emotions that drive them. We name emotions to acknowledge their natures, both constructive and destructive.
גַּ֣ם אַהֲבָתָ֧ם גַּם־שִׂנְאָתָ֛ם גַּם־קִנְאָתָ֖ם כְּבָ֣ר אָבָ֑דָה וְחֵ֨לֶק אֵין־לָהֶ֥ם עוֹד֙ לְעוֹלָ֔ם בְּכֹ֥ל אֲשֶֽׁר־נַעֲשָׂ֖ה תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃
“Their loves, their hates, their jealousies (zeal) have long since perished; and they have no more share till the end of time in all that goes on under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:6)
At Camp Ramah Wisconsin, we assume the profound responsibility of guiding the strong emotions of campers toward mental, physical and best of all, creative outlets. My favorite moments inevitably revolve around music-making, whether it’s during shirah (singing), tizmoret (orchestra) or during the machazot zemer (musicals). This summer, I have been blown away by the dedication, and can I say, zeal of the campers who have signed up for Camp Ramah in Wisconsin’s first ever virtual Machazemer Medley. Ranging in eidah from Solelim to Nivonim, these campers have been punctual, responsible, and eager to learn together, to sing together, and to be together. No less amazing is Ramah’s staff, whether they are working full-time or donating their time and energy to script-writing and choreography, among many other things. Our community is such that while we cannot be in Conover this summer, we carry Ramah b’Wisconsin in our hearts, and in our zooms, wherever we go.
And so we name the names. We remember Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aharon. We remember Zimri ben Salu and Cozbi bat Zur. Like Pinchas, who may have had questionable methods in getting there, we, too, wish for the eternal reward of a covenant of peace. So we direct our zeal toward a fully hechshered (approved) and no less difficult pursuit, the pursuit of justice and peace. For you cannot have one without the other. And maybe by simply naming them, we can will them to be.