Just when you thought things can’t get wilder in the Book of Wilderness, sex, politics, and fanatic violence tip the scales. What else is new? Last week’s Torah episode ends with a cliffhanger – a bloody ‘coitus interruptus’ between a Hebrew leader and a princess of Midyan. It is likely that this public sex act pushed pious buttons not only for its crossing of boundaries between Hebrew and Heathen but also because it represented an idolatrous moment – the ‘Hieros Gamos’ – symbolic union of Male and Female, as celebrated, often, in the pagan world. The two pay with their lives for this moment of passion and/or devotion. Pinchas, a Levite, the man for whom this weekly Torah portion is named, pierces them both with a spear, instantly stopping what seemed to have been an out of control orgiastic party. The next thing we find out is that 24,000 people are dead – victims of a mysterious ‘plague’.
Wait, what plague? There is no clear explanation in this context, and we wonder if this may be not just a case of odd translation but, possibly, an even older version of a ‘intra-translation’ – a political ‘cover up’, where mass murder is disguised as a disease. Was it an epidemic? Is it Divine retribution? Who were killed and who did the killing? We will probably never know, but what strikes us as relevant is the way some events are named and remembered, and the way that those in power get to tell the story and to title inconvenient tragedies, then and now.
Chapter 26, verse 19 comes in after it is all over, with one of the shortest and most chilling verse in Torah: ‘And it came to pass, after the Plague:’
Every single Biblical translation we’ve checked uses the word ‘Plague”, indicating a ‘force-major’ of some sort. But the Hebrew word MAGEFA could also be translated as ‘affliction’ or ‘calamity’ or any form of ‘fatal interruption’. It could also mean ‘the killing’.
As soon as the plague is done, Moses is instructed to count the people, taking stock, perhaps of losses. Rashi, the 11th century French interpreter of Torah remarks:’ This is like a Shepard who counts his sheep after the wolf has attached the flock.’
This is a sad image, especially coming from the pen of a man who has witnessed the horrendous repercussions of the first crusade. Rashi seems to imply that the dead Hebrews are victims of a terrible misfortune, but what is one to do with the preceding two verses in which a revenge on Midyan is ordered, a counter attack to balance out the ‘plague’? Could the dead 24,000 have been the victims of a war, or even an intra tribal civil war, severely repressed? The killing by Pinchas, blessed by God, seems to indicate that some sort of bloodshed took place that day.
In his commentary on this verse, Richard Friedman writes ‘ the plague is a direct, unannounced consequence of the violation of the holy place..’ and as such, whether the bloodthirsty act of fanatics like Pinchas or a mysterious Divinely ordained wiping out of the bad guys – many people died, enough to be noted, counted, and remembered. So, who’s to say? In a world where torture is sometimes referred to as ‘interrogation’ and murdered political prisoners are labeled ‘missing’, this possibly twisted truth, is, sadly, no news. It is likely that more happened here, at this biblical moment in time; than anybody wishes to really remember. This makes us think of Albert Camus, and his book ‘the plague’, where he claims that perseverance in the face of tragedy is a noble struggle even if it ultimately fails to make an appreciable difference.
But can we make a difference, and change the course our story is taking? We believe that we may not be able to alter the inherited, abusive text, but we do have the obligation to ask the hard questions, acknowledge the skeletons in our closet, and make room for a future healed of this abuse. We’d like to walk a path where the Pinchas archetype is not honored anymore. And so we continue to wrestle with the Book of Wilderness, slowly making our way to the Promised Land of high hopes. Stay tuned for next week where more difficult questions arise and an ancient journey takes us one step closer to where we’d really like to be.