V is for Vigilante

Charles Bronson starred in the 1974 classic film, Death Wish. Playing Paul Kersey, a New York architect whose family was brutalized by murderous thugs, Bronson goes on a vigilante rampage.

I saw this movie in a Manhattan theater in 1975 and as a newly arrived tourist, I was astonished to see that every time Bronson used his Colt revolver to blow away another vicious predator, the entire audience erupted in hearty applause. It didn’t take me long to discover that in real life, New York was plagued by similar monsters. They yearned for a real-life Bronson who would put a stop to society-threatening behavior. (Not surprisingly, the New York Times movie critic loathed the film, complaining that it irresponsibly encouraged vigilantism. He neglected to mention that the city’s criminal justice system was methodically allowing many menacing criminals free reign.) It goes without saying that audiences loved the film, driving its box office receipts to meteoric heights and making a star out of Bronson.

Ten years later, in real life, Bernhard Goetz was confronted by four young criminals on a New York subway train. He shot them all. They survived, and the city was divided about whether to fete Bernie or prosecute him. Probably because of the respective races of the protagonists, the city prosecuted Goetz. A New York jury acquitted him. To the public fed up with non-stop crime, he became something of a folk hero.

Over the course of fifty years, city dwellers have been conditioned to accept that public places made terrifying by deranged and dangerous goons and bullies are normal and natural.

On May 1st, 2023, thirty-year-old Jordan Neely, known to and ignored by the ‘system,’ was harassing, scaring, and threatening riders on the F train of New York’s subway, pretty much as he tended to do most days. Regular users of the city’s trains have long been accustomed to being terrorized by hostile and sinister predators. They know that riders have been injured and killed. A 24-year-old U.S. Marine, Daniel Penny, attempted to protect the frightened passengers by subduing Neely in a chokehold. Neely subsequently died.

For nearly two weeks we all wondered whether Daniel Penny would be applauded as a hero who didn’t just stand by while innocent people were endangered or whether he’d be prosecuted for manslaughter. Finally, on May 12th Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg detained and charged Penny. Still, today, whether Marine Sgt. Daniel Penny is seen as a hero or villain depends upon where one stands in America’s great political and cultural divide.

About thirty-three hundred years earlier than the events I describe, an Israelite named Pinchas, whom the beautiful King James translation calls Phinehas, ran a spear through the bodies of a canoodling couple, bringing to an end them and their public intimacies. (Numbers 25:6-8)

Those are the facts. But, was Pinchas a vicious criminal who launched a fatal and unprovoked assault on an innocent man and an innocent woman whose only crime was loving each other? Or was Pinchas a courageous hero who acted decisively when all around him were cowering in docile acceptance of a society-threatening crime? Israelites were divided on this question.

That Torah portion known as the sedra of Balak, then ends with verse 9 informing us that 24,000 Israelites died in a plague.

The following sedra, which is read annually in synagogues around the world a week after the first one, is called Pinchas and opens with a stunning commendation of Pinchas by God Himself. (Numbers 25:10-11) God not only declares Pinchas a hero who saved Israel but rewards him lavishly. It is only then that we discover the identity of the couple that Pinchas killed; a high-profile, counterculture influencer with many followers and his Midianite celebrity girlfriend.

The 13th-century archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who performed the gargantuan task of assigning chapters to all of Scripture, was unaware of ancient Jewish wisdom’s traditional division of the Five Books of Moses into 54 sections or sedras. Those divisions are important because they are not there for convenience as are the chapter divisions. The sedra divisions signify thematic breaks and divisions.

Thus, it is hugely significant that the Pinchas story appears half in sedra Balak and half in sedra Pinchas. Why would God not have put the entire Pinchas story into Balak and started the next sedra at perhaps Numbers 25:18 as did the Archbishop?*

The answer is revealed by the incidents with which I started this Thought Tool. Often, certain courageous actions need to be judged outside of the emotionalism that immediately surrounds them. Had God immediately commended Pinchas and rewarded him directly after his assassination of a popular aristocrat and his pretty girlfriend, a destructive riot could have occurred.

Only in calm and emotionally detached thoughtfulness is it possible to understand how Pinchas’ violent action was the equivalent of shooting a pirate intent on drowning a lifeboat filled with innocent people. Israel’s entire identity as well as its entire claim to Divine protection rested on its moral integrity. In a sense, its lifeboat was its connection to God. Knowing this, the people of Midian and Moab determined to destroy Israel by allowing Israel to destroy itself. To that end, they deployed their ever-eager young women who, in accordance with the values of their own depraved culture, had long since ceased keeping track of their body count.

Ever realistic and accurate, the Torah relates how easily many men of Israel were seduced. Close to the national tipping point, Pinchas acted. In the immediate aftermath, there was a colossal cultural clash about whether he should be feted or prosecuted.

There ends the sedra of Balak. Passions subsided, God let His views be known via a plague, people recovered a sense of justice rather than retribution and vengeance, and sedra Pinchas puts the entire saga into perspective. Pinchas had instantaneously decided that someone had to stop the tsunami of depravity and with one mighty arm, he hurled his spear knowing that nothing short of a breathtakingly shocking action would jolt Israel out of its death wish, its downward trajectory of self-destruction. And it did.

*In our recommended Hebrew/English Bible:

Page 492-493, note the word Pinehas almost halfway down the page, just before verse 10. This is the start of a new Torah portion.

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