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Torah Studies
38--Parshat Pinchas
July 22, 2005
© Rabbi Jack Moline

(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...makhri'o l'khaf z'khut, influencing another to worthiness...

(Numbers 25:12) ...hin'ni notein lo et briti shalom; ...I hereby give [Pinchas] my covenant of peace.

Baseball used to be the great American pastime. Now I think it is deconstructing heroes. Hardly a week goes by that we aren't treated to a story of inconsistency, indiscretion or incompetence about a previously admired public figure. Our founding fathers were slaveholders, our Presidents were philanderers, and the emerging generation of women who lead our country are decried for their hairstyles and fashion faux pas. It seems that the society that is allegedly the most tolerant in history cannot tolerate a good reputation.

I was reminded of this proclivity this past week when I read an exchange of communications about a sitting United States Senator with a famous name and a tragic family legacy. His supporters heralded the work of his Senate years on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. Whether or not you agree with his politics, his effectiveness as a legislator and the underlying compassion of his public service is undeniable. Yet all his detractors could bring in response were hateful remembrances of an earlier transgression, one for which he avoided penalty no doubt through his fame, fortune and persuasive ways.

It is a blemished legacy he will leave, for sure. I know of no one who yearns to live his life, however privileged it has been. But I find it tragic that the life's work of public service for the public good is lost in every conversation by the introduction of the personal disdain of his political opponents.

A person should strive to live to the heights of his or her ideals. But the failure to do so should neither diminish the ideals, nor the good that can emerge from an imperfect life.

Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, would likely have succeeded his father Elazar as High Priest in relative anonymity; perhaps his picture would have hung in sequence in the visitor's center at Solomon's Temple. But he acted precipitously when a couple disgraced the Tabernacle and themselves in the midst of orgiastic abandon. There may or may not have been another way to put an end to the blasphemy, but Pinchas chose vigilante-style execution. His devotion to God's instruction on either side of the incident was almost certainly lost by the infamous act he committed, an act that even his supporters throughout the ages would never justify in their own lives.

But God creates a "covenant of peace" with Pinchas. This intriguing and controversial designation has resulted in the recontextualizing of the life of Pinchas for all generations. If nothing else, every generation of scholars and casual readers of the Torah has debated the ethics of his action, the relative importance of his passion and just what that covenant of peace is all about.

For Pinchas, too, I imagine the covenant of peace forced a reexamination of his life. Each future action of his had to be considered in the context of this gracious and generous designation from God. Absent an explanation, Pinchas himself had to reflect on whether the "peace" of this covenant was retroactive or forward-looking. His own life became an attempt to understand the Torah God devoted to him and his offspring.

When people promote evil but do singular acts of goodness, we may be justified in dismissing the significance of the good they accomplish. But when people promote goodness yet commit singular acts of evil, we lose the opportunity to be inspired by their Torah if we pollute their worthiness with their failures. Perhaps that's why Avot suggests that one of the ways to acquire Torah is to influence another to worthiness. The words themselves imply tilting them in that direction, creating an inclination to the favorable side of their deeds.

In doing so, the Torah of their goodness is more accessible to those who come to learn it. And perhaps just as importantly, their own motivation to seek righteousness and not wrongdoing is increased and enhanced.

How can you be makhri'o l'khaf z'khut? There is someone in your life who has disappointed you. His or her individual actions have created disillusionment with the ideals you once ascribed to admirable character. Give that person your covenant of peace; separate off the inconsistency and harvest the fruits of the fertile goodness of the rest of a life spent striving for righteousness.

Now, do the same for yourself. And then live up to your own renewed expectations.

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