Much public discussion today—in America, Israel, and elsewhere—centers on the difficult problem of how to balance the dangers of the coronavirus with the economic and psychological costs of lockdowns. In this week’s Torah reading of Pinḥas (Numbers 25:10-26:4), Jonathan Sacks finds guidance in the actions of the titular character, Moses’ nephew Phineas. When the Israelites participate in a pagan orgy with the Midianites, God immediately punishes them with a plague, which Phineas stops by simultaneously skewering a Hebrew chieftain and a Midianite woman with his spear. To Sacks, the lesson here is about the distinction between moral and political decisions:
God declared Phineas a hero. He had saved the children of Israel from destruction, showed the zeal that counterbalanced the people’s faithlessness, and as a reward, God made a personal covenant with him. Phineas did a good deed. Halakhah, however, dramatically circumscribes his act in multiple ways. . . . Legally speaking, Phineas was on very thin ice.
[But] Phineas was not acting on moral principle. He was making a political decision. There were thousands dying. The political leader, Moses, was in a highly compromised position. How could he condemn others for consorting with Midianite women when he himself had a Midianite wife? Phineas saw that there was no one leading. The danger was immense. God’s anger, already intense, was about to explode. So he acted. . . . Better to take two lives immediately, of people who would have been eventually sentenced to death by the court, to save thousands now. And he was right, as God later made clear.
I believe that there are moral and political decisions and they are different. But there is a great danger that the two may drift apart. Politics then becomes amoral, and eventually corrupt. That is why the institution of prophecy was born. Prophets hold politicians accountable to morality. When kings act for the long-term welfare of the nation, they are not criticized. When they act for their own benefit, they are. Likewise when they undermine the people’s moral and spiritual integrity. Salvation by zealot—the Phineas case—is no solution. Politics must be as moral as possible if a nation is to flourish in the long run.