Deep in the jungles of the Philippines in the late 1960s, anthropologist Renato Rosaldo discovered a new emotion. He and his wife Shelly were studying the Ilongot, an obscure and largely unstudied tribe far removed from civilization. Part of the reason they were unstudied is that they were known for their head hunting and were considered dangerous to Westerners. The Rosaldos thought otherwise and committed years to learning the Ilongot language and culture, becoming very much part of the tribe itself. Sometime during their time there Renato played for them a recording a tribe member who had recently passed, suddenly the tribe went silent and then began saying over and over again, “it makes me want to take a head.” They were experiencing an emotion they called legit, an intense wave that passes from person like an electric shock, and that can only be cured with an equally intense counter action, like taking a head. Rosaldo escaped harm that day, and later himself went on to experience legit, something he said was like “being in high voltage.”
I heard about this story on a podcast called Invisibilia put out by NPR (the transcript is below if you want to know more) and was very excited because it helped me better understand the central character in this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas. At the end of last week’s Torah portion, the Israelites had been overcome by an emotion similar to legit in response to certain members of the community worshiping the idol Baal-peor. Chaos ensues and only is stopped when Pinchas impales a Israelite and Moabite couple in their tent. To our modern sensibilities this entire episode is very upsetting, but it only gets worse at the beginning of this week’s portion when Pinchas is then rewarded a covenant of peace, or eternal priesthood for his actions. The experience of the Ilongot tribe made me realize how much out of our depth we are in understanding what is happening in Torah. It is not just the ancient Hebrew that can be obscure, but the emotional lives of the Israelites may be as well.
I think of the word Shalom that is generally translated as peace. But what exactly does it mean? I think Pinchas’ covenant of peace (brit shalom) may give us the answer. Peace is the opposite of legit or chaos, it is the resolution of all of those intense feelings. This week, I visited a mikveh or ritual bath in Rochester where I came as close as we can today to what the Torah means by shalom. There in the waters of renewal, the chaos of the world leaves and one can feel spiritually and physically at one with the world.