What the Story of Phineas Teaches about Morality, Politics, and Plague

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.

Read more at Jewish Press

More about: Biblical Politics, Coronavirus, Hebrew Bible, Morality, Numbers

Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy