The image of his smiling, victorious face, aglow with the sense of vindication that seemed to be one step away from “I told you so,” has become the paradigm of the image of impending disaster. And the signed agreement he waved victoriously as he stepped from the plane, fresh from his seemingly successful whirlwind negotiations, has become synonymous with the adage of any agreement literally “not worth the paper it is written on.”
The year was 1938, the man was British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and the agreement was the peace deal he had signed with no less than Adolph Hitler, relinquishing allied promises of protection to the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia. This flawed decision, which essentially set the stage for World War Two, was briefly celebrated as heralding the wisdom to “make peace not war,” thus avoiding the arrogant thinking which had led to World War One a scant 25 years earlier. But it soon became clear that this weak-willed abrogation of an established alliance and treaty would pave the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland, and the eventual loss of tens of millions of lives.
Chamberlain’s famous meeting with Hitler in 1938 was one of those “what if” moments, which might have changed the course of history.
Beginning with Germany’s Anschluss invasion of Austria, and culminating with Germany’s march into Czechoslovakia, the Allies had ample opportunity to declare war on Germany and stop Nazism in its tracks before its military machine became unstoppable. But Chamberlain, along with the rest of the Western world, missed opportunity after opportunity, until it was too late. Why was it so difficult to see what Hitler really wanted? Why did so many world leaders lack the will to say “enough”?
Obviously the echoes of this question chillingly resonate today, as allied powers are negotiating with Iran in a bid to prevent its becoming a nuclear power. And for that matter, one might suggest this same question is at play in Europe and across the world, as governments struggle to find a solution to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, and attempt to find the line between negotiating peace and threatening military or other confrontational options.
• • •
This week’s parsha, Pinchas, offers a fascinating insight on this topic. The beginning is actually a postscript to the end of last week’s parsha, Balak.
Balak, the King of Moab, having just witnessed Israel’s victory over the mighty Amorite army, realizes the Jews cannot be conquered on the battlefield (sound familiar?). So he entices Balaam, the great sorcerer of the ancient pagan world, to come and curse the Jews instead. Balaam clearly wants to go, but G-d denies his request. Yet, when the Moabite emissaries return a second time to entice Balaam to acquiesce, Balaam asks G-d again, and G-d agrees, though clearly angered with Balaam. Ultimately, G-d foils the plan and causes Balaam to utter blessings instead of curses.
But Balaam is not done. He foments a plan to entice the Jewish men with Midianite women who seduce them to idolatry, culminating with no less than Zimri, a prince of Israel, cohabitating with a Midianite princess at the entrance the Holy Tent of Meeting!
So how does one respond in the face of such wickedness? Incredibly, Moses and Aaron fall to the ground, seemingly at a loss for what to do! Enter Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson. Grabbing a spear, he ends this obvious affront to both the word of G-d and Moshe’s leadership. By spearing the offenders, he halts the plague which decimated the Jewish people as a direct result of the licentious and pagan behavior. That was the conclusion of last week’s portion.
This week’s portion begins with G-d’s reaction to Pinchas’ action: “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the [high] priest turned back my anger [says G-d] from the children of Israel … thus do I give him my covenant of peace.”
The rabbis question why the Torah finds it necessary to share Pinchas’ lineage here, since we are already aware of it. Rashi suggests that the Jewish people are shocked by such a violent and zealous act, so G-d reminds us that he is the descendant of Aaron, known as the: ohev shalom and the: rodef shalom (lover and pursuer of peace).
• • •
The phrase ohev shalom makes a lot of sense here. That seems indeed to have been Aaron’s great merit, and the commentaries suggest the Torah is telling us that Pinchas, despite his zealous action, was actually a lover of peace as well, that he was willing to take such a violent action to stem the plague decimating the Jewish people, not because he hated Zimri but because of his love for peace.
The term rodef (pursuer), however, is curious terminology. The rodef in Jewish tradition is anything but peaceful; rather it often refers to a person pursuing the killer of a blood relative, determined to kill him as an act of vengeance or justice.
The Torah actually permits and even obligates us to stop this rodef at all costs — even, if necessary, by taking his life. And the rabbis expanded this term to include anyone whose actions are threatening a life (as for example, an unborn baby whose birth is endangering the life of the mother — until the birth, the baby is considered a rodef in that it is threatening the life of the mother and the mother’s life, in the event of a necessary choice, takes precedence.
So why is this same term of rodef used here to refer to a pursuer of peace? Is there some connection?
The Chatam Sofer suggests that in this instance Pinchas was actually doing the opposite of “making peace” — he was chasing it away! Sometimes, the Chatam Sofer suggests, making peace can lead to anything but peace, and the real lover of peace in such an instance has to be willing to chase it away by doing the opposite.
Pinchas understood, that to stand by and “make peace” with Zimri’s actions, and do nothing while a Jewish leader was causing such an affront to everything Judaism held dear, was actually allowing G-d’s wrath to continue, and allowing the plague to continue to decimate thousands of Jewish lives.
In the sin of the Golden calf, it was Aaron who let the Jews throw gold in the fire, resulting in the Golden calf; perhaps the Torah is suggesting here that the previous generation of leadership did indeed “make peace” with evil, with disastrous results.
• • •
We live in a world which is so desperate to make peace, but there are some things with which we cannot make peace. As long as Iran refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and declares its desire to annihilate us, we cannot make peace with it. And make no mistake about it — it goes much deeper than the dismantling of their nuclear capability. As long as they are supporting terror around the world, and funding attacks on Jewish and Western institutions, we cannot make peace with them.
As long as the Palestinian Authority continues to laud and support suicide bombers and teach their children to hate, we cannot make peace with them; any such “peace” agreements will inevitably lead to war.
And as long as Hamas declares as its aim the destruction of the State of Israel and every Jew, everywhere in the world, we cannot make peace, nor should we be seeking truces with them either, as painful as this may sound, and as zealous as it may seem. The refusal to make peace with evil is actually the pursuit of real peace.
And lastly, there are so many things we should not make peace with on a personal level. We should not make peace with leaders whose behavior is less than exemplary (though we must be careful about pillorying them publicly without being sure of the facts), and we should not make peace with unethical behavior, even if it may be unpopular to publicly take that stand.
Perhaps, this week of Pinchas, it would be a worthwhile discussion at the Shabbat table to consider what things we should not make peace with, and what we might do to ensure that we pursue such a reality.
A version of this column appeared in 2015.