An infestation of all-or-nothing


I recently read a column by sportswriter Sam Smith in which he was asked for his thoughts about former Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant signing a free agent contract with the Golden State Warriors in order to try to win a championship.

Smith didn’t think the move was uncompetitive or reflected Durant’s fear of losing. He did think it was an example of “the zero sum game that sports has become. You win a title or you are a loser,” Smith wrote. “It’s ridiculous because so many factors out of your control can determine the ultimate success. You cannot measure personal competitiveness and pride just by the scoreboard and the trophy case.”

While many people criticized Washington-native Durant for his choice, I wonder how many of us feel the same in our own lives as we imagine he does. We are all feeling pressure to be at the top of our field and feel that if we’re not, we’re at the bottom.

In many other areas, there is a similar movement toward black-or-white thinking, a feeling of, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s no in between.” Every time I look at the news, I see people yelling at or attacking each other (either verbally or physically) because they disagree, don’t have the same politics or are just different. This all-or-nothing attitude has infested American life.

All this came to mind as I reflected on this week’s parasha Pinchas. Pinchas, as we know from last week’s reading, murdered an Israelite man who was “bringing close” a Midianite woman during a plague which was caused by just acts.

We were told in last week’s reading that this murder stopped the plague.  This week’s parsha begins with God granting Pinchas a “covenant of peace” and a “covenant of priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the Israelites” (Numbers 25:10-13).

Many commentators follow the p’shat, the literal reading, of the Torah and approve of Pinchas’s act; after all, he ended the plague and was rewarded by God. The editors of the “Etz Hayim” Chumash are more hesitant, noting that in the Torah scroll, the yud in Pinchas’ name is written smaller than normal because “when we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yud in us (standing for the name of God and for yehudi, ‘Jew’) is diminished thereby.”

Similarly, the vav in “shalom” is written with a break in its stem to imply “the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one’s opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace” (p. 918). In other words, these scholars argue that while Pinchas was rewarded, we should not rush to emulate his example.

Like the editors of “Etz Hayim,” we need to develop our ability to find a middle ground to balance out the either/or feelings noted above. While we may not be the best in the office, we can still find satisfaction in our work; while we may disagree with someone else, there may be merit to what they’re saying; while someone else may be different than us, that doesn’t mean he or she is bad; just because Durant didn’t win a title, doesn’t mean he’s not a great player.

Rabbi Steven Henkin is the director of congregational learning at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.

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