Pinchas at Champlain Towers
This week’s Torah reading, Pinchas is named for the man who acted decisively, violently and somewhat controversially. As narrated at the end of last week’s Torah portion, a brazen act of rebellion and immorality was directed at Moshe’s leadership in front of the entire Jewish nation.
The leader of the tribe of Shimon challenged Moshe by asking him, “Hey Moshe, is this Midianite woman permitted or forbidden (for me to have sex with)? And if you are going to say, ‘Forbidden’, well, who allowed you to marry the daughter of Yitro (who is a Midianite)?!”
To emphasize his point, he had relations with the woman right there and then. As if that was not bad enough, to make matters worse it took place at the holy Tent of Meeting where God would converse with Moshe. Needless to say, this was not a romantic interlude but an in-your-face challenge to Moshe and his position as leader and prophet.
Everyone witnessing this uber-chutzpah act was so in shock that they were paralyzed as what to do and how to react. Amidst this confusion that even seized Moshe who seemed at a loss, Pinchas stood up and killed the couple on the spot.
The Talmud, as quoted by Rashi, lets us in on what transpired right before Pinchas’ bold act.
“And Pinchas saw…” means he saw the deed and reminded himself of the law. He said to Moshe, “I learned from you, ‘If someone cohabits with a heathen woman (in such a public and brazen fashion) a zealous person has a right to strike him dead (right then and there).’ He (Moshe) replied to him, “Let the one who remembered the law be the agent to carry it out.” So immediately, “He (Pinchas) took a spear in his hand….”
There is much discussion in Jewish texts on the issue of Pinchas’ actions and the parameters that would allow for it. Suffice it to say that in Jewish tradition there aren’t too many occasions for vigilante justice and people cannot go around knocking off others whenever they feel the need. It is only in very specific circumstances such as this particular case.
What struck me as odd, however, is the curious exchange that took place right beforehand between Pinchas and Moshe, as quoted by Rashi above. Pinchas turns to Moshe and reminds him of what needs to be done – based on what he heard from Moshe himself. But then Moshe punts it back to Pinchas and tells him, “Hey, since you’re the one who remembers the details, then you do it.” It’s as if Moshe is telling Pinchas that this is one of those situations where if you have to ask, well then maybe you ought not to be asking. Just go ahead and do it. And Pinchas did.
We don’t usually run into such dramatic events in the normal course of our lives. But there are those occasions when it is better not to ask at all – especially when you know what the answer is likely going to be. And so we are better off just taking matters into our own hands and doing what needs to be done.
These are the times in life when you simply cannot go through the normal channels, ask permission, wait for due process or fill out the necessary forms. Especially when you’re dealing with a bureaucratic mentality where every answer is likely to be “No”. Those are the times when you just have to take the bull by the horns and do what needs to get done – no questions asked.
A highly dramatic example of seizing the moment and acting decisively happened last week at the tragic and awful collapse of the Champlain Towers in Surfside. I first encountered this particular case when I received an email from my daughter’s school, Bais Ya’akov asking for funds to help a family whose daughter attends the school and who escaped the tragedy but lost everything. At first I thought that their apartment must have been adjacent to the ones that collapsed and hence all was destroyed; figuring who could survive such a catastrophe? But then I heard more details about this family and saw the CNN interview (which you can see here: https://collive.com/mother-describes-miraculous-escape-from-surfside-collapse/).
Sara Nir describes how she happened to be up that night answering emails and heard odd sounds that she first thought to be a neighbour hanging pictures. But as the noise got louder and more intense, she didn’t ignore it but took the initiative to go to the security guard to report the odd racket. He said he also heard it and she asked, “So what are you doing about that?”
Just then she heard a large boom and saw the parking garage collapse. She thought it was an earthquake and told the security guard to call the police, hit the alarm and warn others. She sprang into action and ran back to her apartment and saw her two kids standing in the hallway, paralyzed and not knowing what to do. Her daughter was reluctant to leave since she was just wearing a bathrobe (that great Bais Ya’akov tsnius education kicking in) but Sara screamed that they need to run out of there as fast as they can. As they left the building the security guard was still in shock and she yelled at him again to call the police. They then ran across Collins Avenue and, as they did, the building came crashing down.
We should never have to experience what this brave woman went through. Although this might be an intense example, it is one of those times where one has to throw out all notions of protocol and do whatever your gut tells you at that moment. You cannot allow fear or uncertainty to paralyze you as it did the security guard in this instance or, by the same token, those standing around in front of the Tent of Meeting, not knowing how to react.
Moments like these call for one to act quickly and with certainty, decisiveness and conviction. This is what Moshe was telling Pinchas. No forms, no permission, no “let’s process this and think it through”. This is your show, go for it. And Pinchas did. So did Sara Nir.
Sometimes – not all the time but sometimes – we need the zealousness of Pinchas or the motherly passion of Sara Nir to seize the moment, let our passion for justice or our parental emotions for our children’s welfare take hold and break protocol, forget any rules, and do whatever it takes to stop the injustice or save a life. Sometimes you just gotta step up and be like Pinchas. Sometimes you just gotta step up and be like Sara Nir… and save the day.
Some of them were angry
At the way the Earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge Her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect Her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of Her fury in the final hour
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived