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Sermon for Friday, July 10, 2020: "On vigilantism"

One of the more popular themes in Television and Movies, in the action-adventure genre, is vigilantism. This is where the protagonist takes it upon themselves using whatever special talents or skills they have to avenge the death(s) or unjust treatment of either themselves or someone close to them. They typically go outside the law and in the end it’s always justified. We, the audience, cheer them on and get a catharsis and vicarious satisfaction.

Today, we see this idea of vigilante justice playing out in our society. Many people have taken to the streets to peacefully protest the unjust treatment of people of African descent by rogue actors in various police agencies. While the bulk of the protests have been civil, some have resorted to extreme measures, like tearing down statues of historical figures that they deem to be offenders. They have occupied various areas in select town halls and police stations interfering with their proper functioning.

We see this idea of vigilante justice played out in this week’s Torah portion, “Phinehas”. Phinehas is Aaron’s grandson and next in line to become the High Priest after his father Eliezar ben Aharon. At the end of the previous portion, the wizard/prophet Balaam failed to curse the Israelites and make them weak enough for defeat in battle. The Moabites then had their allies, the Midianites, send their daughters to seduce and corrupt the Israelites with their pagan practices knowing the high esteem in which the Israelites held morality. Once the Israelites morality decayed, they would be easy to defeat in battle. Phinehas then took it upon himself to mete out justice by eliminating a Simeonite prince and Midianite princess who were cavorting in public.

The Torah seems to condone and even approve of Phinehas’ actions. G-d had instructed Moses to slay all the offenders and even though Phinehas was doing so, some commentators take him to task. They say that he acted rashly and not within G-d’s specific instructions. They support this by G-d’s comment to Moses that Phinehas “has turned back my wrath from the Israelites” and “I grant him My pact of friendship”; in other words, tell everyone that would seek to avenge their kinsman, to not do so.

In fact, this seems to be one of the character traits of the Levites, Phinehas’ tribe who have a history of meting out their own justice. After some Israelites made the Golden Calf idol when Moses didn’t descend from Mt. Sinai at the time they expected, it was the Levites that put them to the sword. Even his own tribe’s progenitor, Levi himself, joined with his brother Simeon to be judge, jury and executioner of the Shechemites when their own prince violated their sister Dinah.

While the Levites actions in these incidents may seem to be justified, consider the consequences. While the other tribes became farmers or animal herders, or even tradesmen, the Levites were not even able to own land. Yes, there were Levite cities scattered around the holy land, but any resources they may have produced were just for their own survival. The Levites and Cohens that officiated at the Temple were dependent on the yearly contribution by the other tribes and generosity of those doing sacrifices for the various reasons. The Levites were also relegated to assisting the priests by doing their labor (carrying materials for use in the Temple) and standing watch. In fact, some commentators feel that the Levites’ duties were such so that G-d could keep an eye on them.

Contrast these incidents with another incident in this portion. These are (one of my favorites) the Daughters of Zelophehad. Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah approached Moses and stated that their father had died of his own sins (not part of any rebellion) and not left any sons to inherit his property. Of course, in those days property ownership was male and was left father to son.

Moses stated their case to G-d who said כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ the pleas of the daughters of Zelophehad is just. G-d instructed Moses to make sure they received the father’s portions. So whereas the woman’s movement may have started 100 years ago with woman’s suffrage, and today we are seeing women’ rights become more and more commonplace in our modern society, Judaism held up woman’s rights over 3200 years ago.

The point here is that we see two incidents of justice and their consequences. In the former, we have people taking the law into their own hands and the outrage it caused. In the latter, we see people who go through the system and approach the Ultimate Judge with humility. As a result, their names live on and we see a sense of justice that the modern world is just beginning to comprehend and embrace.

The Torah teaches us how to influence people for the better. While the progress may be too slow for some, evolution rather than revolution tends to have a more far-reaching effect. We should remember the daughters of Zelophehad and take their example. These women knew how to affect change.

This sermon is dedicated to the memory of Sherry Beth Reiter and thank you to my wife, Rebbetzin Chris for the feedback in helping me write this sermon.

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