Thomas Carlyle, the great Scottish historian, once said: “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History the Great Men who have worked here.” Carlyle believed that the driving force behind history is its heroes, those unique individuals who rose above ordinary expectations to push mankind forward. Carlyle felt that heroism could be found in poets and politicians alike. There is no single model for heroism.
Importantly, Carlyle believed that heroism did not require perfection. All human beings have their many flaws and imperfections. And yet, the heroic figures in our ranks manage to channel their energies to seize the moments that shift our paradigms, truly moving history and society forwards. They overcome their human flaws, sometimes surprising even themselves, to alter the world in which they live.
In many ways, the theme which endures throughout this week’s parasha is the idea that extraordinary people can indeed transcend probability and change the world around them. This parasha begins with the story of Pinchas, a figure who went beyond all societal expectations, perhaps even beyond the letter of the law, to fatally punish an insubordinate leader who jeopardised the very integrity of the nation. The Torah describes how the entirety of society, Moses included, simply wept by the sanctuary in despair at the sight of their prince publicly succumbing to temptation.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) Moses, Israel’s greatest leader, simply forgot the relevant laws and thus had no response to this calamity. The man who confronted Pharaoh and shattered God’s tablets was caught in a moment of personal turbulence, leaving a momentary harrowing void of leadership. In the midst of all this havoc, it was only Pinchas who understood what needed to be done, and acted. “Pinchas the son of Elazar , the son of Aharon, saw, and arose from within the congregation…” Pinchas had both the vision to see what was wrong and the audacity to arise from the among of the masses.
No one else expected Pinchas to take such a drastic course of action. Interestingly, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a) explains that had Pinchas asked the court what to do, “they would never have said to do such a thing.” Had Pinchas asked for legal counsel, the course of action he ultimately took would have been rejected. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) states that the court even considered excommunicating Pinchas had Prophecy not suddenly come to vindicate him.
A few verses later, a similarly extraordinary act is undertaken by the daughters of Zelaphchad. Zelaphchad’s five daughters raised the right and obligation of women to inherit property in the absence of a male heir. Void of any male offspring, the inheritance laws dictated that Zelafchad’s legacy would be lost. In a moment of extraordinary courage, the daughters of Zelaphchad bring their plight to Moses and question the unfair treatment of their father. After the daughters of Zelaphchad issue their complaint, Moses conveys their cause to God.
In a remarkable parallel to the case of Pinchas, Chazal note that Moses also did not know what to answer the daughter’s of Zelaphchad. The leader of Israel once again had suddenly forgotten the particular laws in question. Ultimately, it is only the word of God that tells us that both Pinchas and Zelaphchad’s daughters acted properly: “And God told Moses: The daughters of Zelafchad speak correctly…” and “And therefore I will give him [Pinchas] a covenant of peace.”
Acts of heroism, which shatter the expectations and paradigms of wider society, often appear inexplicable to onlookers. The power of societal norms and of deeply entrenched cultural habits are often difficult to transcend. Sometimes moments of crisis leave all in a crippling state of paralysis. What is clear is that both Pinchas and the daughter’s of Zelaphchad were unwilling to succumb to the norm, to mundane predictable prospects. They sensed that a critical moment was glaring right at them and rose to the occasion.
One problem with Carlyle’s writings is that he viewed heroes as objects of worship. Carlyle’s approach leaves one marveling at the splendid heroism of history’s great men, whilst expecting little or no heroism from oneself. Indeed, extreme admiration of others often leads to a sense of personal inferiority. Heroism becomes an innate quality rather than something attained through struggle. The message the Torah seeks to awaken within us is that we all have heroic potential. We certainly ought to admire and appreciate the extraordinary people that have graced the world. Yet, they should also serve as a reminder as to what energies lie latent within us too.
Wishing a Shabbat shalom to all.
May Shabbat bring peace and safety to all those in Israel and the extraordinary soldiers who risk their lives to protect it.