Judaism: What Characterized Pinchas?
Moshe BurtMoshe Burt is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of the Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
We learned in Parsha Balak that Bila’am’s scheme to seduce Jewish men to avodah zora by way of immorality (forbidden co-habitation) resulted in
a plague which killed 24,000 Jewish men until Pinchas’ act brought the plague to a halt. However, Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 4 and 5
And Hashem, said to Moshe: Take all of the chiefs of the people, and hang them up unto the Hashem in the face of the sun, that (there)
may turn away the fierce anger of Hashem from Israel. And Moshe said unto the judges of Israel: Slay you every one his men that have
joined themselves unto the Ba’al Peor.
A few years ago, Rabbi Chaim Zev Malinowitz spoke out what was, for this author, a Chidush (new interpretation) which shed more light than previously on the significance and magnitude of Pinchas’ act of slaying Zimri and Kozbi as they co-habited.
Rabbi Malinowitz asked how it could be that the B’nai Yisrael, through 200 plus years in Egypt and throughout their wandering in
Bamidbar until now, maintained a way of life which precluded illicit co-habitation, and yet have gone so fundamentally wrong on the eve of
entry into Eretz Yisrael?
He brought a Medrash Rabbah indicating that Hashem brought a stream of water from Sodom to Shittim where
the B’nai Yisrael were encamped and suggested that the ingesting the water apparently brought about a test of B’nai Yisrael which many
Rabbi Malinowitz cites Rashi on Perek 25, posuk 4 and 5, particularly posuk 5:
Rashi on posuk 4:
Take all of the chiefs of the people — that they shall judge the worshippers of Peor and hang them up — the worshippers…
Rashi on posuk 5:
Slay you everyone his men — Everyone of the judges of Israel killed 2 (offenders);and the judges of Israel numbered eighty-eight thousand, as it is stated in Sanhedrin (folio 38).
If we do the math, if 88,000 judges each hung and killed 2 sinners, that’s 176,000 of the Am Yisrael who died by hanging. Now add to that
the 24,000 who died in the plague and we see that the Chet of the Ba’al Peor took the lives of fully 1/3 of B’nai Yisrael before Pinchas’
impailment of Zimri and Kozbi as they co-habited brought an end to the death.
Rabbi Malinowitz also added, citing sections of Tanach, that, for example, Yehoshua noted decades after the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael
that the B’nai Ysrael are still suffering for the sin of the Ba’al Peor and that full tikkun for the chet will only come in times of Moshiach. He
indicates that Hashem did an abundant favor for B’nai Yisrael in permitting them to enter Eretz Yisrael in wake of the chait.
This author reasons further that, just as only 20% of B’nai Yisrael were up to the test of taking the Korban Pesach, slaughtering it and
applying the da’am to their doorposts, so too 1/3 of the new generation in Bamidbar failed a crucial test just before entry into Eretz
Are we of our generation -- with our indifference, self-centeredness, short attention spans, our callousness, insensitivity and disdain for
our brethren and our collective proclivity for exhibiting Jewish self-degradation before the gentile nations -- any more righteous than the
1/3rd of the new generation of Bamidbar who died for the illicit nature of the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or? Or of a later generation where the
24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died because they showed each other insufficient respect?
How can we perpetrate, or stand-by and tolerate those who perpetrate repeated expulsions of our fellow Jews from their homes and communities
on Jewish Land? How can we calluosly laugh at our brother's matzav? The phenomenon of Jewish self-degradation, throughout history, is one
of the great mysteries of life.
To return to the discussion of last week’s Parsha Balak, even though perhaps falling short of the magnitude of Zimri’s aveirah with Kosbi,
at what point is the extent of one’s sin outside of the pale? At what point is this sinner chayev cheirem from the Kehal in this world and
forfeits even the most fundamental merit in Olam Haba — in Shemayim — in the next world? At what point does such a sinner not even
merit the neshama of a “toe-nail”?
That even some Jews, as well as leadership, could be capable of treating their fellow Jews with such deaf-ear, blind-eye, nonchalance,
lip-service or worse seems, at least, every bit as contemptible as Zimri’s illicit co-habitation with Kosbi in the Camp by way of the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or.
And yet we learn from Midrashim on Parsha Pinchas that there was much dispute in The Camp as to Pinchas’ action in slaying Zimri and
Kozbi. There were those who wanted Pinchas killed for killing another Jew; quoted by Rabbi Artscroll (Stone Chumash page 876, Sefer
Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 11):
“This grandson of someone who fattened calves to be sacrificed to idols” had the gall to kill a prince in Israel! [Pinchas’ father was married
to a daughter of Yitro, a former Midianite Priest, who was called Putiel…]
While Pinchas's zealousness was a manifestation of"L'Shem Shemayim, Rav Zelig Pliskin, in his Sefer "Growth Through Torah" (page
There are many instances in life in which the correct thing to do is not always the most popular.... But a person whose focus is on doing
the will of the Almighty will not be deterred even if others will insult him for his behavior.
Pliskin also cites Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Berlin (the Netziv) who commented ("Growth Through Torah", page 359), and then comments:
"Pinchas did a zealous act that could cause someone to be aggressive even when it would not be appropriate. Therefore, The Almighty
blessed him with a coventant of peace. In all other areas of his life he should be a man of peace." (Haamek Dovor)
Our usual state should be one of peace. There are times when it is proper and necessary to be aggressive.... We become molded by
our behavior. If we keep acting in a certain way it becomes part of our usual personality. To prevent this from happening..., someone
who has to be aggressive on occasion should go out of his way to be extremely kind and compassionate in other instances.
So we return to our discussion from last week’s Parsha Balak concerning Zimri’s distorted model and “novel, misleading ideology”; his
false, bogus proposition of “acting for the sake of Shemayim (Heaven).”
Shem Mishmuel (Shem Mishmuel, English by Rabbi Zvi Belovsky, pages 361-362) notes that while a “sin for the sake of Heaven” could
theoretically have a place within Jewish life, it is unworkable if attempted in practice:
An action must be absolutely free of any self-interest or motive other than serving Hashem and realizing His aims. Without this condition,
the act is a sin like any other.
Shem Mishmuel then cites a Chazal (Vayikra Rabbah 14:5):
It is impossible for even the exceptionally pious not to have sin as at least a fraction of their motive.
In short, it would seem that in order to have been able to act as Pinchas did, he would have had to be perfectly righteous, to be
“absolutely free of any self-interest or motive other than serving Hashem and realizing His aims.”
Shem Mishmuel also notes that commentators render Pinchas as a gilgul of Kayin (Cain), but continues that Pinchas took Kayin’s aggressive,
self-centered, jealous traits which resulted in his killing of Hevel, and elevated them to a level of acting only L’Shem Shemayim.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe noted in regard to Pinchas' action (Studies in the Weekly Parsha, by Yehuda Nachshoni, Parsha Balak, page
“He impailed the woman through the belly”; “He aimed his spear between their male and female members, proving that he did not kill
them in vain.” Why would we think that he had killed them in vain? Rather, the Torah here alludes to the law that a zealot has free reign
only while the act is in progress.
And R' Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (the new Hirsch Chumash published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel
Haberman) has a lot to say about the magnitude of the sin compelling Pinchas’ zealous action. R' Hirsch provides translation of a few
of the last posukim of Parsha Balak (Perek 25, posuk 6, page 524 and posukim 14 and 15, page 530) and commentaries:
"...A man from among B'nai Yisrael... brought the Midianite woman..." (posuk 6)
"The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman was Zimrim son of Salu, a prince of... the tribe of Shimon."
"The name of the slain Midianite woman [was] Kozbi, daughter of Tzur; he was the head of the peoples... in Midian." (posuk 15)
From [subsequent] verse 14 we learn he [who committed the sin] was one of the tribal princes. Nevertheless, here he is described
simply as "a man from among the Children of Israel", ...apparently in order to consider his act solely [that]... of a "Jewish man." The fact
that he was a prince and should... have served as a model of moral purit certainly added to the seriousness of the crime. And Pinchas'
act appears all the more exalted considering that the person from whom exacted Torah's vengeance was above him in rank. Hence it is
fitting that the Torah in verses 14 and 15 informs... of the ranks of both the man and the woman.
Nevertheless, the seriousness of the
crime... does not depend on the fact that the person who committed it was a prince. What makes the crime so reprehensible is that it
was committed by a "Jewish man."
A man of B'nai Yisrael had, with the Midianit [Midianite woman] flouted Hashem, His Torah and Israel. Therefore he became liable to
punishment at the hands of a zealot... moved by zeal for Hashem, ...Torah, and for Israel...
Hirsch then writes on the merit of Pinchas' act for which Hashem conveyed upon him the Kehunah (Perek 25, posuk 13, page 529):
...Just as the tribe of Levi attained the rank... by it's actions at the sin of the golden calf and then was expressly chosen for this office, the
same happened here: In his act of rescue, Pinchas acted as a Kohen...; he carried out in actual practice the atoning devotion which the
avodah of the Kohen performs symbolically in the Sanctuary [Mishkan, Beit Hamikdash]. That is why he was elevated the the rank of
Kohen [everlasting Priesthood] after his act.
Thus Hashem conveyed the Kahuna, and eternal life upon upon Pinchas in vindication regarding the vicious, false accusations against
him and in recognition of the justness and Kiddush Hashem of his action.