Fixing the Broken Peace: Pinechas and the Outbreak of Violence
By: Rabbi Jonah Rank, Hebrew Seminary President & Rosh Yeshivah

As I write these words, 15 days after the mass shooting at the Highland Park 4th of July Celebration 2022, our news outlets continue to share updates about victims, their families, and the community.  This senseless act of gun violence impacted our own community at Hebrew Seminary; members of our faculty, our friends, and our families had themselves been present at what would catastrophically become a crime scene.  We grieve with and for those impacted by this senseless violence.

Living in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming today an average of over 400 Americans dying daily in the last two weeks alone,[1] we in the United States remain threatened by the endemic of gun violence.[2] Indeed, the Gun Violence Archive records that guns have been responsible for the deaths of over 200 Americans on average each day of 2022.[3] Just as we have all learned ways to prevent the transmission of COVID-19—masking, distancing, and the like—we must learn what it will take to stop the spread of gun violence.

Remembering that we humans, like all other organisms that walk this earth, are merely animals—anthropology demonstrates that aggression is a trait human beings share with many other species, including many of our primate relatives among them.[4] Yet, humans are blessed with free will, the capacity to live off of far more than fight-or-flight reflexes alone. The Divine force who endowed humans with the God-like trait of living an examined life[5] bespeaks the same Heavenly authority that told the Israelites, “I have offered you life or death, blessings or curses; choose life so that you and your offspring may live.”[6] Evolution alone cannot account for our whole being as moral creatures. Nature and the ordinary are too low a bar for an organism who strives for a higher ethic. In Jewish life, we strive to experience the supernatural; in our secular lives, we aim for the extraordinary.

It is therefore a fortuitous sign of the times when the very moral consciousness of modern Jews leads us to a place of shame when we read the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Pinechas. Though our ancestors were instructed to love the stranger (and the Babylonian Talmud recounts the Torah instructing us as such dozens of times[7])—we are stunned by Aaron’s grandson Pinechas, who fatally wounds the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite Kozbi for their multifaith cohabitation.[8] What is even more repugnant to our moral sensibilities is that the Israelite God YHWH appears to reward Pinechas for his belligerence. YHWH tells Moses to inform Pinechas that the latter will be blessed with God’s “covenant of peace, and that he and his offspring… will possess the covenant of eternal priesthood.”[9]

Our generation is not the first to be taken aback by the thought that God bequeathed a covenant of peace to a spear-wielding homicidal zealot. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Nachman about 17 centuries ago argued that where the word שָׁלוֹם (shalom, “peace”) should be spelled with its letter ו (vav) קְטִיעָה (keti’ah, “sliced”) here.[10] In contemporary practice, the scribe Mordechai Pinchas offers his own attempt at presenting this segmented vav in this place of strange peace:

(Image accessed at on July 19, 2022.)

The mismatch of this hateful act in a text that preaches love led to centuries of esoteric and evasive understandings of this stricken vav. For example, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (in 13th–14th century Germany and Spain) suggested that the Vav is broken in pieces to allude to a vav that traversed two time periods. In his mystical fantasy, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher equated Pinechas with the (much later) prophet Elijah[11] and claimed that this multigenerational vav was on loan to our ancestor Jacob (whose Hebrew name was only occasionally spelled with a vav) but was supposed to be collected in the Messianic era by Elijah (whose Hebrew name was almost always spelled with a vav).[12]

There is a much simpler explanation for the rupture of this vav. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin—the once-rabbi of Lutsk, Ukraine, who died in 1966 in Israel—wrote in his extensive Torah commentary אָזְנַיִם לַתּוֹרָה (Oznayim LaTorah, “Ears to the Torah”):

וא״ו קטיעא. מכיון שהשלום הזה נרכש ע״י שפיכת דם… אין הקב״ה שמח במפלתם של רשעים. וצערו של הקב״ה ע״ז נתבטא בוא״ו קטיעא של מלת שלום, שהוא שמו של הקב״ה.

The vav is sliced. This is because this peace was earned by way of spilling blood…. The Holy Blessed One does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. Thus, the pain of the Holy Blessed One is thereby expressed through the sliced Vav of the word Shalom—which is the name of the Holy Blessed One.[13]

Indeed, the very name of holiness, God, has been slashed by the fatal blows that Pinechas dealt to an Israelite who, in linking himself to a Moabite woman and her religion, committed an idolatrous act. On the other hand, Pinechas may have believed that he fought for, and achieved, peace, and he certainly saw himself as doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord. Still, in fact and in writing, God could not attach God’s own name to Pinechas’ fundamentalism without first mutilating the name of Peace. No matter any attempt to justify—no weapon is a tool of peace.

We are just a few months away from the end of the year 5782 on the Jewish calendar, and, if we do nothing, we inevitably will be sadly slated to witness more violence before Rosh HaShanah. But, to honor the memories of those who were slain without cause on July 4 in Highland Park—and throughout the United States nearly every day—we can and must demand a world with greater peace. We need a world where laws, conduct, and discourse prevent the next false justification for violence against the innocent. The offense never renders a society safer.

To honor the lives lost and the wounded from gun violence, now is the time to talk about reducing—and ending—violence. Now is the time to partner with our communities, to ask our civic leaders to step in, to be good neighbors, and to model extraordinary kindness in the public sphere among strangers.

Now is the time to act so that future generations may merit to write the story of our lives, with the word shalom, with an unbroken vav.


[1] See as accessed on July 19, 2022.
[2] See Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, “Firearm Injuries: Epidemic Then, Endemic Now,” in American Journal of Public Health 97 (4), pp. 626–629.
[3] See as accessed on July 19, 2022.
[4] See Richard W. Wrangham, “Two types of aggression in human evolution,” in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (December 26, 2017) 115 (2), pp. 245–253.
[5] As recalled in Genesis 1:26 and many times elsewhere in TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible) and Jewish tradition.
[6] Deuteronomy 30:19.
[7] Bava Metzi’a 59b.
[8] Cf. Numbers 25:16–18.
[9] Numbers 25:12–13.
[10] Kiddushin 66b.
[11] This teaching can be traced to a few centuries earlier in Pirkey DeRabbi Eli’ezer 47:8 in the name of a (pseudonymous?) Rabbi Eli’ezer.
[12] Ba’al HaTurim on Numbers 25:12, s.v. אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם (et beriti shalom, “My covenant of peace”). For fuller analysis, see fn. 9 on pp. 403–404 of the critical edition of ben Asher’s commentary, edited by Rabbi Yakov Kopel Reinitz, Ba’al HaTurim: Peyrush Al HaTorah LeRabbeynu Ya’akov ben HaRO”Sh ZTz”L (Jerusalem, Israel: Feldheim, 1995–1996).
[13] Oznayim LaTorah on Numbers 25:12, s.v. שָׁלוֹם (shalom, “peace”).