The High Price of Peace

Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

In last week’s portion we learned about the prophet Balaam and how he was not able to curse Israel in a direct manner. Every time he opened his mouth to curse Israel, it would be filled with blessings instead. Nevertheless, at the end of last week’s Torah portion we learned that Moab was somehow able to have a destructive impact on the Children of Israel:

While Israel lived in Shittim, the people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel. (Numbers 25:1–3)

The result was devastating. Thousands of Israelites died in a plague because of their infidelity to the One who brought them out of Egypt. Fortunately, this plague was brought to an end, but only through the seemingly vigilante style execution of an Israelite and his Moabite escort at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Pinchas (Phinehas), the son of Eleazar the Kohen, took a spear and ran it through both the Israelite and his lover. After this act, the Torah tells us, “Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped. Nevertheless, those who died by the plague were twenty-four thousand” (25:8–9).

Many people have questioned this act of Pinchas throughout the centuries. Was this act a vigilante one and could the plague have been stopped through another means? This question becomes even more pronounced when we look at the following verses:

And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’” (Numbers 25:10–13)

Although a surface reading of this passage seems to indicate that this action was indeed sanctioned by the Holy One of Israel, there is something going on behind the scenes in the Hebrew. Verse twelve says, “Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace.” In the Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. It is written with four Hebrew letters: shin-lamed-vav-mem. In this case, however, one of the letters is written in an unusual manner. In this passage, the word shalom is written defectively with a broken vav in a standard Torah scroll. The letter vav is cut in half.

From this anomaly many have speculated that the covenant of peace that Hashem made with Pinchas was not necessarily a perfect or complete one, but one given more as a consolation prize. According to this theory, the LORD did not completely approve of the vigilante aggression of Pinchas. But does this theory hold water?

First, if we read the account of Pinchas in last week’s portion, his act is initiated by the command of Moses in the verse just before his story is told. Moses told the leaders of Israel, “Each of you kill those of his men who have yoked themselves to Baal of Peor” (Numbers 25:5). Therefore, Pinchas was merely following the instructions of the LORD given through the mouth of Moses.

Second, the Scriptures memorialize the act of Pinchas as one of righteousness. The Psalms tell us:

Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stayed. And that was counted to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever. (Psalm 106:30–31)

If this is the case, then what does the broken vav tell us? What does it symbolize? If we think about the numeric and symbolic meaning of the letter vav, then we can make another connection. The letter vav has the numerical value of six. Since man was created on the sixth day of Creation, the letter vav has come to represent mankind. While we can only speculate, it is likely that the broken vav reminds us that this covenant of peace that was given to Pinchas and his descendants came at a very high cost. It came at the cost of human life. Humanity was diminished, or broken, in order to bring about peace.

The next time we are enjoying a moment of peace, let’s not forget the price that was paid to achieve that peace. Not only did our forefathers fight wars and give their own blood so that we might have peace today, but our righteous Messiah was broken on our behalf so that we might have peace as well. The vav will always remain broken so that our peace may be made whole.