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A Hard Right

07/20/2022 10:50:52 AM


Back in the early days of the internet, I found myself in a predicament. I was taking a United States History class with an upcoming test. To prepare for the test I would look over my notes and any past tests and quizzes to make sure I didn’t repeat the same mistakes. However, I misplaced one of my past quizzes. I wondered if I could find a replacement quiz online – and after some searching, I was rewarded with a cache of all the quizzes that my teacher seemed to use. However, the trove of tests also came with the answer keys, including those of upcoming tests. I was an honest student and I immediately resolved not to cheat on the test. What purpose would that serve for my own education and learning? But I was presented with a dilemma. If I told the teacher, then she might suspect that my good grades in the class were undeserved. Perhaps I was only getting good grades because I had access to the answers and was cheating. On the other hand, don’t I have a duty to tell the teacher so that she wouldn’t be taken advantage of by less honest students? What was I to do?

In this week’s portion, Parshat Pinchas, our protagonist is presented with a similar dilemma. The Torah relates an account of the Midianite women who seduce the Israelites towards idolatry, thus incurring God’s wrath. God, through Moses, commands the leaders to put a stop to the licentiousness, but one leader has the audacity to publicly ignore the command. In a fit of zealousness, Pinchas puts a stop to the affair through an act of vigilantism that results in the death of the brazen Israelite and his Midianite mistress. However, our sages imagine that this act had a political dimension that complicates the story further. Pinchas is the grandson of Aaron, but also the grandson of Jethro, the Midianite! It’s not just that Pinchas stands up for God and the commandments, but by doing so, he undermines this other part of his identity. He raises up his ties to the Israelite community, but simultaneously diminishes himself and his Midianite ancestry in the process. Interestingly, there is a tradition that the first time Pinchas’s name appears in the Torah, one of its letters (the ‘yud’) is smaller. This is as if to say, that when Pinchas does the right thing, it is at his own expense. He is diminished in the process.

There are many times in life that doing the right thing comes at some expense to ourselves. Sometimes doing the right thing takes time, energy, discomfort, and resources and we are diminished in some way in the process. Yet, we should always strive to do what is right, even if it costs us something. Surely, Pinchas had something to lose in the process by executing judgement on his kinsmen. Similarly, as a young student, I had something to lose by telling my teacher that her tests and their answers were compromised. In the end, Pinchas took the high road and did what needing doing. I too took the virtuous road and risked my own reputation to tell my teacher about the availability of her answer keys. In the end, my teacher appreciated my honesty, rendering my fears unfounded. Though, there is no guarantee that doing the right thing will work out in our interests. We might end up more diminished for doing the right thing. However, that shouldn’t stop us from doing the right thing anyway.  

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784