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Avoiding a hateful heart
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Avoiding a hateful heart

Pinchas — Numbers 25:10-30:10

Love is an emotion. It is a feeling, often a very passionate one, that we have toward another person, creature, or object.

Our Torah speaks of the love we are to have for each other, for the stranger in our midst, and for the Almighty. Scripture alludes to the love a man and woman have for each other as a feeling akin to a divine flame, a passion as powerful as death itself, an emotion that cannot even be quenched by many waters (Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Giving is an action. Sometimes it is prescribed action, such as charity to the poor. “Give, yes give to him, and let your heart not begrudge what you give to him” (Deuteronomy 15:10). Often the giving is voluntary and takes many forms: tangible gifts, time, compassionate words, or careful listening.

The question has been asked, “Do we give to those whom we love or, perhaps, do we love those to whom we give?” Which comes first? The love for one another or the giving to the other?

This question was asked by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a prominent 20th-century educator and thinker who was born in Eastern Europe, worked in England, and spent his last years in Israel, in the first volume of his posthumously published writings, known as Michtav M’Eliyahu.

The question is an ancient one, posed by many philosophers from both within and outside the Jewish tradition. It is the question of whether feelings motivate actions or whether actions stimulate feelings.

The American philosopher and psychologist William James had a definite answer to this question. He believed that first we act and, based on our actions, we feel. Act joyfully, dance and sing, and you will feel joy. Act despondently, sit in solitude and fret, and you will feel depressed. James’ theory is known in textbooks as the James-Lange theory.

Within our own tradition, the medieval author of the Sefer HaChinuch enunciated a similar belief. He asserted, “Acharei hape’ulot nimshachim halevavot,” the heart follows one’s actions.

If it is true that feelings of love derive from loving and giving behaviors, then it must also be true that feelings of hatred derive from hateful and violent behaviors.

Thus we can understand an otherwise puzzling passage in this week’s Torah portion, parshat Pinchas.

Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, the peace-loving high priest, commits an action of zealotry. A Jewish man named Zimri parades his Midianite paramour, Kozbi, before the “eyes of Moses and the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel” (Numbers 25:6). Pinchas swiftly, almost impulsively, grabs a spear and thrusts it through the two of them, killing them instantly. That episode is narrated at the very end of last week’s Torah portion, parshat Balak.

This week, we read of the Lord’s response to Pinchas’ action. He commends it, saying that Pinchas “has removed My wrath from upon the children of Israel” (Numbers 25:11). And the Almighty proceeds to reward Pinchas with “My covenant of peace” (Numbers 25:12).

In his commentary on this phrase, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (d. 1892), dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin, expresses surprise at this reward. After all, Pinchas acted violently, militantly. Shouldn’t his reward be a medal of war, a prize for zealotry and courage? Why a covenant of peace?

Rabbi Berlin, known by the acronym formed by the first letters of his name as the Netziv, answers eloquently: “Because it is the nature of actions such as those of Pinchas, who killed another person by his own hands, to permanently leave behind strong feelings of hatred upon the heart of the perpetrator; therefore was the blessing of peace bestowed upon him so that he should always remain gentle and peace-loving and not develop into a cruel character.”

Violence contaminates the soul, regardless of whether or not the violent acts are justified.

This is why soldiers, when they are debriefed after battle, need special counseling. They need to be able to put the actions they performed, even for reasons of self-defense, behind them so that they do not develop permanent feelings of hatred and cruelty.

How well I remember the words of Golda Meir, soon after the Six-Day War; she said she could forgive Israel’s enemies for everything, but not for the fact that they made warriors out of Israel’s sons. She knew that once a man serves as a soldier in war, even in defense of his country, he will likely struggle for the rest of his life to make sure that he does not remain a warrior at heart.

All of us have been guilty, even unintentionally at one time or another, of some sort of cruelty to others. We must be sure that those cruel actions do not result in “cruel hearts.” We must be sure that we do not let cruel or violent actions, which we legitimately perform in extreme circumstances, become permanent parts of our character.

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