When to Break the Rules
This week’s Torah reading is named after Pinchas who acted decisively, violently and somewhat controversially. As narrated at the end of last week’s Torah portion, a number of Jewish men were seduced by foreign women, both sexually and religiously. As was often the case in ancient cultures, sexual immorality was frequently mixed into pagan rites and religion.
During this shameful episode, one particular brazen act of rebellion and immorality was directed at Moshe’s leadership when a tribal leader publically had sex in full view of Moshe and the Israelites. To make matters worse it took place right in front of the holy Tent of Meeting where God would converse with Moshe.
The people were aghast and so in shock that they were paralyzed as to what to do and how to react. Amidst this confusion that even seized Moshe who seemed at a loss, Pinchas stood up, took a spear and killed the couple, and thereby stopped a plague being wrought against the Israelites as punishment.
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 Moses, “I learned from you, ‘If someone cohabits with a heathen woman (in such a public and brazen fashion) zealots have a right to strike him dead (right then and there).’ ” He (Moshe) replied to him, “Let the one who reads the letter (i.e. remembered the law) be the agent to carry it out.” Immediately, (as the Torah states) “he (Pinchas) took a spear in his hand….”
There needs to be much discussion on the issue of Pinchas’ actions and the parameters that would allow for it. (Rabbi Sacks has a nice piece on it this week here: https://rabbisacks.org/pinchas-5780/) Suffice it to say that in Jewish law there aren’t too many occasions for vigilante justice. But what struck me as odd is the curious exchange that took place right before Pinchas gets to work.
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 into Pinchas’ court and tells him – hey, if you are the one who remembers the particulars, then you do it. It seems that 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, but just go ahead and do what needs to be done.
And that is sometimes how it is in life. We run into those occasions when it’s better not to ask at all – especially when you know what the answer is going to be. And especially if you don’t want to know what the answer is going to be. And so we are better off just taking matters into our own hands and getting the job done.
Although not nearly as dramatic as our parsha, I recall a few years ago when one of my son’s ears was bothering him and he went to the doctor to get it treated. But soon afterwards the other ear started to bother him as well. The problem was that the first doctor who treated him was on vacation. I have a friend who is an ENT specialist – but he was also away. I happened to have my annual checkup appointment with my doctor, so I called his office but the receptionist said if he took my appointment, then I could not see my doc for another few months and no they could not squeeze him in. So what did I do? Not listen to her of course. I figured, what the heck, I will just take my son along with me and hope for the best. And sure enough my doctor (who happens to be a friend, yes that helped) took a few minutes to treat him. The bottom line – don’t always listen to the receptionist and her rules. She is just doing her job.
Or there is our annual Purim party which is held in front of Aish. We block off the street outside of our center because there is not enough room for all the people attending to hold it indoors. There are still other roads to get around within the plaza so it is not a total inconvenience. Ask permission from the landlord or management? Fuhgeddaboudit, you know what the answer would be. So I just put out a few orange traffic cones (you can buy them at Home Depot) and some yellow DO NOT CROSS tape (also Home Depot) and it all goes well for the few hours we are out there. Nobody complains.
There are certain times in life when you cannot go through the normal channels, ask permission, wait for due process or fill out the necessary forms. Especially when you know that you are dealing with condo-commando mentality. 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.
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. Pinchas did and was duly rewarded.
Sometimes – not all the time, but sometimes – we need the zealousness of Pinchas. We need to seize the moment, let our passion for justice, or our parental emotions for our children’s welfare, take hold and break protocol. Break protocol and yes, maybe a few rules too, and do whatever is necessary for something imperative to get done.
Those are the times when we cannot simply go by the book, wait and hope. The occasion demands a swift, out-of-the-box decision and action and you have to just plough ahead and do it. There is nothing wrong with that, and in fact it may very well remedy a terrible wrong being committed as in the case with Pinchas. Or it may simply alleviate the pain in a child’s ear.
Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And I saw it through without exemption…
The record shows,
I took the blows
And did it my way