I know that showing consideration, even in the smallest of ways, works. Flowers can heal emotional wounds. Birthday cards show thoughtfulness. Bearing a box of chocolates helps make one feel more welcome. I understand that these things are effective, that they work.
But try as I might, I have never, until now, really understood why this is so. I go through the motions of showing appreciation, but I am almost entirely indifferent to whether or not someone thinks of me on my birthday, or Father’s day, or my anniversary. Tokens just don’t matter very much to me. I don’t think that in this respect, I am all that different from a great many men in the world.
So why do we do these things? Because to women, tokens make a very considerable difference indeed. Without the input of women, there would be no greeting card industry, a much-reduced jewelry industry, and flowers would be almost invisible. So all properly-raised men learn, from a young age, to pretend. It just makes life easier.
Until now, I have always considered all of this a necessary evil. But re-reading Parshas Pinchas has made me come to an entirely new realization of the value of tokens. We need to care, if for no other reason than the fact that G-d cares.
Consider: Cohanim are the Jews in charge of etiquette. It is they who must observe all of the forms, behave in a precisely correct manner whenever serving G-d. And the offerings that they bring are, all of them, mere tokens of appreciation. We do not, as Jews, sacrifice to G-d things that are truly valuable – we are forbidden from engaging in human sacrifice, and we do not offer the bulk of our wealth or possessions to G-d.
So a sacrifice is merely a token. And yet, like flowers, they make a big difference. They show that we care.
Showing consideration is, of course, not enough. Bringing someone flowers does not help the recipient forget a transgression – but it does help them overlook it, to consign it to the past.
I would argue that this is the clear meaning of “kaparah” in the Torah, when applied between G-d and man. A Kaparah is often translated as atonement, but it is a poor translation – just as the giving of an “I’m sorry” gift does not erase the past. A kaparah is a covering, allowing for a close relationship, even – and especially – when the raw, unalloyed essence of emotion would lead to the end of a relationship. A kaparah is a token, showing G-d that we care, and asking that he has a close relationship with us even though G-d and man are so different that such a relationship would ordinarily mean that we perish before the divine presence.
Which brings us to a different understanding of the significance of Pinchas’ action when he ran Zimri and Cosbi through with a spear. G-d praises him, saying that Pinchas’ act of vengeance created a kaparah for Hashem’s own act of vengeance. In other words, Pinchas proactive killing of the sinning couple stopped Hashem from destroying all the Jewish people.
But how can one act, by one man, save many thousands of people who had been engaged in evil acts? The answer, I think, is that G-d recognizes that nobody is perfect, and that we will sin – even heinously, as in this case. But when we do sin, Hashem needs to see that someone is willing to stand up and show G-d that even though we do wrong, we do not forget Him. Pinchas’ act was merely a token, but it meant everything. The Jewish people were saved because someone remembered to act with consideration for G-d’s presence. Pinchas showed that he cared, and in so doing, he created the kaparah, allowing G-d and the Jewish people to be intimate, without it necessitating our destruction.
And this is why Pinchas is changed from a normal Jew into a Cohen. The purpose of a Cohen is to create that barrier between man and G-d, to carefully and zealously observe and sustain the etiquette that is necessary in order to allow G-d’s presence to dwell among the Jewish people. This kaparah more normally happens during Yom Kippur, with the slaughtering of the goats. Those goats do not undo the sins of the Jewish people, any more than Pinchas’ act undo the sins of the Jewish people. But they are acts that show G-d that we care, that we take the time and effort to show proper consideration to the King of Kings.
If man is made in the image of G-d, then Hashem possesses every emotion that can run through our heads. In order to fulfill the obligation to know Hashem, we have to both understand men and women. I would argue that the bringing of sacrifices is a concession to the feminine attributes of G-d. G-d cares that we do the little things.