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Angela W. Buchdahl
On Problem Solving (Parashat Pinchas)

Angela W. Buchdahl  |  July 13, 2012

Faced with a particularly challenging problem, a lot of our first instinct is to want to beat the problem with a stick, whether it’s a figurative or a literal stick.  We saw that actually in last week’s Torah portion, when Balaam’s donkey does not move, and so he takes a stick to her and just beats her, even though she was acting in his best interests.

And this week, our portion, Pinchas, our people are faced with a real problem.  It seems that the Moabites and Midianites are luring the Israelites into idol worship through the wooing of the men by the Midianite women. So God denounces this behavior to Moses and as soon as he does that, an Israelite comes by, escorting a Midianite woman, in the face of Moses and all the people.

 

Well, Pinchas, who was Aaron’s grandson, he won’t take this, and so he takes a stick—in this case, a spear—and he stabs it right through the belly of the Israelite man and the Midianite woman, in the face of all other people.

 

Now on account of this violent action, the plague of the Israelites is actually checked, and it seems that he is rewarded for this action, even if later rabbinic commentaries try to temper this or even negate his praise.

 

Now, fast forward to later in this portion.  In this same portion, we have a very different story of five daughters of Zelophehad, who approach Moses after the death of their father.  Without any sons, the practice was to find the next male kin who’d be able to inherit all the property.

 

So they plead on their own behalf to say,  “We have a right to inherit this property.”  But they don’t just argue that: they also argue in honor of their father.  They said,  “Our father was not one of those ones who followed Korach’s fashion, which banded against the Lord.  Let our father’s name not be lost because he has no son.”

 

They argued not only about fairness and protection for themselves, but they even appealed to God’s own best interests, to keep the name of one of the faithful few, who never rejected God during Korach’s rebellion.

 

Moses brought this case before God, and God agreed.  This was unjust.  And that Zelophehad’s name should be honored.  His daughters changed the inheritance laws and the course of history.  Not with a stick, but with appealing to our higher selves, and maybe our self interest.

 

Now, these are radically different stories, and they offer two very different approaches to problem solving: Pinchas’ response—rather impulsive and violent, and Zelophehad’s daughters—they were measured and appealed to reason.  But one of the main differences between these two approaches is actually in their underlying assumptions about human beings.

 

Pinchas took a very negative and pessimistic view of human nature.  He felt that people wouldn’t respond to anything but punitive measures.  So punishment and in this case, the most extreme punishment possible, which was death, he believed was the only way that we would be able to stop this action and deter any other bad behavior in the future.

 

Now the daughters of Zelophehad had a fundamentally optimistic view of human beings, believing that deep down, and God perhaps also, believing that deep downm when people are confronted with an injustice or a wrong, they’ll do the right thing.  And if that’s not enough, then at least they will appeal to their own self interest.

 

So now these two view s of human nature play all the time when we’re trying to solve problems in the world.  And there was a particularly important and striking example of this that unfolded this week at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Pittsburgh, a very powerful and influential church group in the United States.   One of the principle areas of debate was concern for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how best to leverage change in that area in what seemed an intractable situation.

 

Some Presbyterians felt the only way to make change happen in that region was with a stick, in the form of divestment from companies that might financially benefit from settlements in the West Bank.  Talks of divestment from Israel have been on the PC(USA) agenda since 2004.

 

And our own rabbi, Peter Rubinstein, and Katherine Henderson who is the president of Auburn Theological Seminary, have been among the tireless supporters of Israel who have tried to educate the Presbyterian Church that divestment was not going to be able to further the agenda of peace in that region.

 

I’m on the board of Auburn currently, and I got to hear from Katherine firsthand, her experiences this week at the conference, her tireless advocacy for Israel, and against divestment.  When I asked her about some of the challenges, I was surprised when she mentioned that one of the most vocal groups at the conference was a group of forty young Jews who came with signs saying “We’re Jews for Divestment.”

 

And they made such an impact on the assembly that many people had said,  “Oh, the tide has turned, they’re representing the new generation; it’s just a bunch of old rabbis who are not for divestment. Look at this.”  They were very well organized, and they were very vocal.

 

Now my heart sank because early in the week, at this general assembly, the steering committee voted for divestment, but it still had to be put to a vote before the larger PC(USA) assembly of six hundred delegates.  Jewish groups and other large church bodies were all waiting and watching to see the results.  For PC(USA)’s influence extends much farther than just their own membership.

 

In the end, they voted against divestment by the slimmest margin of three votes.  But before we get too excited, they did vote to boycott all products that were made in the West Bank by an overwhelming majority.

 

So now, that divestment proposal, it probably would have passed were it not for the work of so many of our grassroots supporters that are in the Presbyterian Church and so many others who came, but it’s also because there was an alternative solution that was posed.  One that approached the problem not with punitive measures, but by incentivizing change.

 

Auburn Seminary helped to draft a minority report that not only opposed divestment, but actually offered up the solution of investment in the region.  And that was, they said, the path to bringing peace . Instead of the stick, which would only punish not only Israel, but ultimately the Palestinians and Arabs who were also there, the minority report appealed to the reason and the self-interest of all those involved.

 

If you have Palestinians and Israelis and Christians mutually dependent on each other in industries and businesses that support their families and build up the infrastructure and offer a possibility of hope and economic stability, this is ultimately what will bring about a peaceful resolution that we all pray for.

 

Now this story, this is one chapter, but it is certainly not finished, and even though divestment was defeated, boycotts were not, so it really feels in some ways a small victory at this moment.  But I actually think that this chapter in Israel is ultimately a very hopeful one because it foretells a sea change in the conversation about how we might deal with this problem in Israel.  Because for the first time, the buzz word at PC(USA) and now in lots of other large church groups is no longer “divestment,” but “investment.”

 

It may seem wildly optimistic to think that people are going to invest in the West Bank, and in businesses there and in industry there, but guess what?  We’re a wildly optimistic people.

 

There’s a story actually of our prophet Jeremiah, who was offered to purchase a field.  Now he could not inspect this field or see the field because he was under house arrest.  He could not graze his sheep on this field or plant any crops or make any revenue off the field.  In fact, it was actually, at the time that the land was offered up for his purchase, occupied by an army of his enemies.

 

But he purchased that field.  Because he really believed God’s words, that he said that one day, we would all come back to that place and settle in safety and in peace.  Any one of us might have only seen a war-torn field, but Jeremiah could see his future.  And he invested in it.

 

So drop the stick, give people something to work for, something to hope for, and let us appeal to our better instincts and our higher selves.

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