No Absolutes - It's All About Timing and Context
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
The Torah describes how the Israelite men were enticed into acts of sexual immorality with the Midianite women. God brought a plague upon the people which ended as a result of the action taken by Pinchas, the son of Aharon. Pinchas killed the leader of the tribe of Shimon and the Midianite princess with whom he was cohabitating. God rewards Pinchas for his heroic act with a covenant of peace.
The hebrew word for peace is shalom. There is a strange tradition to write the word shalom with a broken ‘vav.’ This tradition demands an explanation. Rabbi Naftali Tavi Yedudah Berlin explains that it would only be natural for Pinchas to lose sensitivity and peace of mind after committing such killings. God therefore restored his inner peace and tranquility by giving him this covenant of peace. However, this blessing turned out to be the downfall of Pinchas. The divine gift of tranquility and peace led him to be too laid back and passive. At a later time, when the Jewish people were involved in idolatry (the idol of Michah) he failed to protest their idolatrous activity. Therefore the ‘vav’ in the word shalom is broken, indicating that this divine blessing itself caused his downfall.
This explanation teaches us a fundamental lesson. What often defines whether an action or character trait is good and moral is not the action or trait itself, but rather the timing and context of its execution. In most contexts and times, taking the lives of other people is considered a violent evil act. However, there are select situations and contexts in which taking the lives of others is the good and righteous thing to do. The obliteration of terrorist organizations is a typical example of this. Similarly, inner tranquility, calmness and non-reactivity are appropriate and good in most contexts and times. However, when one has an opportunity to make a protest against what is wrong and incorrect, acting with a relaxed, peaceful and calm disposition is not considered good in the eyes of the Torah. May God grant us the wisdom and judgment to know whether a situation requires action or inaction and the strength and courage to respond accordingly.