Natan Sharansky wrote in his book "Fear No Evil", a memoir on his years in isolation in Soviet prison, that one thing kept him sane and hopeful through all his ordeal. Sharansky was able to create a community in his mind with idealists alive and dead throughout time who were committed enough to a cause that they persevered the worst human indignities. Though not physically connected to any of them he was now one with them and together they would persevere, a community of the spirit.
I recalled that powerful image this week as I reviewed the current parshiyot of Matot-Maasei. In part of the reading G-d commanded the Israelites to go to war with Midian in retaliation for their having seduced the Israel into idolatry. From each tribe one thousand men were chosen to go into battle. And with them God told Moshe to send Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest.
Rashi brings the medrash that gives several possible reasons why Pinchas was made to accompany the soldiers into war. You recall Pinchas was the hero of the last two weeks readings where we read how he saved the Israelites and stood up for the honor of the Divine when he slew Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon and Cozbi, a princess of Midian for their brazen act of public immorality and idolatry. One of the reasons Rashi brings gave me pause. He said that Pinchas was sent into the fray because he had unfinished business with Midian. Pinchas,in tradition, was a decendent of Yosef from his mother's side. Yosef, as you will recall, when condemned by his brothers, was taken out of the pit and sold to Egypt by none other than a Midianite caravan. Now at last Pinchas would have opportunity to pay back the Midianites for that crime and so he was sent specifially to join the troops and to fight with the army of Israel.
This reason for Pinchas' place in the army seems fanciful at best. First the story with Yosef occurred some 250 years earlier, thats a long memory even for a zealot like Pinchas. Second why should a crime committed by a group of sojourners, a caravan, condemn a nation to punishment? The Midianites who sold Yosef were a random group of merchants. How is a whole people responsible for their actions? And still further, the Midianites who sold Yosef did not intend something personal. It was business as usual for them, buy and sell. Why now should Pinchas go to take revenge and make it personal, something it never was? And finally, Pinchas was only remotely connected to Yosef through ancestory on his mother' side. If anyone would take up Yosef's honor we would think it would be someone from the tribes of Menashe and Ephraim who are directly descendent and carry Yosef's name. Why Pinchas?
On reflection I think the medrash Rashi quotes is telling us something very intriguing, deeply insightful. Lets you and I think about this character Pinchas.
Pinchas had to cope with challenging circumstances. He was born into a family of priests but he was not one. And why? because when Aharon was annointed a kohain he and his four sons were annointed with him. One of them was Elazar, Pinchas's father.
Thereafter all the children of these kohanim would automatically be considered priests with the attendent rights, duties and privileges. Pinchas however was born prior to his father, Elazar's, annointing. He therefore was not made a kohain by birth, nor through the ritual that gave status to his elders. He was therefore left out. It was not until the episode we read about in the preceeding weeks that Pinchas, in reward for his zeal in the name of G-d, gets a special gift from G-d that engenders him a kohain..
So we might imagine that life was not easy for Pinchas growing up. His younger siblings, born after him, had title and responsibility he did not get. They served in the Temple. He could not. They might all sit around the table and eat the teruma, priestly gifts. He had to abstain. A non-kohain may not eat of these gifts.
He might well have wondered,"Is this really fair. Why wasn't I annointed with my father and uncles since I was already born? Why am I excluded?"
He would have been likely to have felt left out. On the one hand he was not really an ordinary Israelite since he was from the family of Aharon but he was not a priest yet either!
He would do well to have felt marginalized indeed with no natural community.
So with all that experience of marginalization and rejection did anything good come out? You bet! I would argue that it was this dynamic of Pinchas's life that made possible all his heroics. When all the establishment was paralyzed by the outrageous behavior of Zimri and Cozbi only Pinchas could find the inner resources to react. And why? because Pinchas never was part of the establishment, not as a leader nor as a follower. He had to chart his own course. And because he did not confrom to the pattern and felt an outsider he could break the mold and do something out of the box. Only Pinchas, one not a prisoner to conformity could take matters into his own hands and kill the prince and princess, thereby saving the nation.
And in the story of the war with Midian we find a similar dynamic. It is Pinchas who is called upon to redeem the violation done to Yosef all those years prior. More than anyone he knew what it meant to be an outsider like Yosef. He understood the pain Yosef carried through his life. He and only he could have community with Yosef and likely did when he, Pinchas, felt so isolated all those years. He had the same community with Yosef that Sharansky had with those with whom he identified, a community of the mind and spirit.
Yosef's story was not 250 years old to Pinchas. It was current and alive. Yosef was a mentor and support to Pinchas and very much a contemporary. We could imagine Yosef gave Pinchas hope when he felt so much on the margins and alone.
Pinchas was then eager and worthy to redeem his ancestors suffering at the hands of the Midianites. They shared a story in common.
Truth be told each of us has our own story of pain and disappointment. We all have had our journey with its attendent suffering. While I am not prepared to call suffering good. I think the story of Pinchas makes a compelling case to say that suffering is at the very least purposeful. If Pinchas had not had his journey with its challenge he would not have been able to become the hero he needed to be.
You and I have moments in life that we are called to, moments where, while others may be present, we alone have the capacity or sensitivity to respond.
For each of us, our journey provides us with a wisdom, a capacity, a passion that is unique to us. While we may have at times secretly cursed our fate, it has prepared us for our calling even as Pinchas's life prepared him for his.
We would do better to embrace our journey with its suffering and see how is has shaped us, helped make us who we are today.
If we are still alive there must yet be a mission for us to perform, one that only we are meant for and able to do!
And it is the very grist of our life, the stuff we would often rather forget, that makes our unique calling possible!