Shabbat Shalom: Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – Fanaticism, particularly when garbed in the clothing of myopic fundamentalism, rarely evokes in us a sympathetic bent. How could it, given its association with an uncontrollable zeal and violence for the sake of heaven?
But when we turn to the opening of this week’s portion, the Torah lauds Pinchas for zealously killing a Jewish man and a Midianite woman in the very heat of their sexual passion as they recklessly defy God’s command. For responding so quickly and decisively, we read that, “God spoke to Moses saying, Pinchas, a son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the priest, was the one who zealously took up my cause among the Israelites and turned My anger away from them… Therefore tell him that I have given him My covenant of peace…” (Numbers 25:10-12).
The Biblical summation is certainly one of praise and approbation. Indeed, Pinchas’ full genealogy is presented in this sequence; we are also given the name of his father as well as of his grandfather, Aaron the high priest, indicating that the Torah wants to underscore his linkage to Aaron, “lover and pursuer of peace”. Moreover, both grandfather and grandson succeeded in stopping plagues sent by the Almighty to punish the Israelites.
Aaron had been instrumental in stopping the plague that broke out after the Hebrews raised angry voices against Moses and Aaron when Korach and his rebels were swallowed up by the earth (Numbers 17:6-11). Pinchas’ act of zealotry arrested the plague which had destroyed 24,000 Israelites who engaged in immoral sexual acts with the Midianites (Numbers 25:9).
When all is said and done, the Torah wants us to look upon Pinchas not only as Aaron’s grandchild but as his direct spiritual heir.
And when Pinchas receives the Divine gift of a covenant of peace, it is clear that he is being marked eternally as a leader who fostered peace and wellbeing, rather than fanaticism and violence. How do we square this with a flagrant act of zealotry?
In order to really understand what Pinchas achieved, we must view the events leading up to Pinchas’ act. I would submit that had it not been for his quick response, nothing less than ‘war’ would have broken out and Civil War against Moses at that!
The Israelites had begun consorting with the Moabite women (Numbers Chapter 25), with harlotry leading to idolatry. They justified their actions philosophically and theologically by claiming that whatever is natural, whatever gives physical relief and good feeling, is proper and laudatory.
This is the idol called Baal Peor, who was served by everyone doing their most natural functions of excretions before the idol, testifying to a lifestyle which justifies any and every physical expression. At this point, God commands Moses to “…take the leaders and impale them publicly before God.” (Numbers 25:4). Only the leaders are targeted, but their death is to be vivid and painful, hanging in the hot sun, their dissolute flesh to be devoured by birds of prey who live on carrion.
What we have here is a repeat of the golden calf debacle which had taken place 40 years before. At that time, Moses didn’t hesitate to exact punishment. He took the idol of the golden beast, ground it to powder, mixed it with water, and called for volunteers. The Tribe of Levi killed 3,000 Israelites on that day. Moses had only to call “Whoever is with God, stand with me” and all of the Levites rallied to his side.
Forty years later, the situation is tragically and radically different. Moses directs the judges of Israel to take action; but when he speaks to them, he changes the Divine graphic description of hanging the leaders in the sun to the more diplomatic, far less aggressive, command that “…each of you must kill your constituents who were involved with Baal Peor.”
And then, a devastating occurrence follows: “Behold, and one of the children of Israel came and brought… a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the congregation of the children of Israel (25:6).” Who was the Jew who dared defy the Divine decree and the authority of Moses? None other than Zimri, Prince of the tribe of Simon, second in line of the tribes, between Reuven the first born and Levi, the Priests. He was obviously continuing the rebellion of Korach, demanding his rights as a descendant of the son of Jacob who preceded Levi and was now claiming an exalted position.
He chose a Kazbi, a Midianite princess – a woman with status and lineage in the Gentile world. In the face of this revolting and licentious defiance, what was the reaction of Moses the leader? “They were weeping at the Tent of Meeting” (ibid). Why was Moses rendered impotent, unable to quell this rebellion against him and his God? Because Zimri had previously gone around taunting the liberator of the Hebrew slaves: How can he forbid sexual contact with Midianite women if he himself took a Midianite wife! (B.T. Sanhedrin 82a).
The Israelite world is considerably changed from what it had been 40 years before, during the period immediately following the Golden Calf – the Jews are no longer contrite in the presence of Moses. The Israelites had been told that after the sin of the scouts, the entire generation was doomed to die in the desert. Everyone was demoralized and disappointed. For years after the exodus, no one stood up to Moses as Korach did. And now Zimri hopes to discredit Moses even before God – because of the Prophet’s Midianite wife.
The Bible records: “And Pinchas saw…” (25:7). What did he see? He saw the people rebelling and he saw Moses weeping. He saw the end of the history of the children of Israel almost before it began, he saw immorality and assimilation about to smash the Tablets of Stone for the second time, without a forceful Moses with the capacity of restoring the Eternal Testimony once again.
This is when Pinchas steps in. In killing Zimri and Kazbi in the midst of their immoral act in front of all of Israel, he quells the rebellion, re-establishes Mosaic leadership and authority, enables Torah to remain supreme. Pinchas has reinstated the covenant between God and Israel, and so he is truly worthy of the covenant of peace.