Community > Jewish Life > Pinchas: Coping with Zeal

Pinchas: Coping with Zeal

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

The beginning of our sidra concludes the story of Balaam's malicious efforts to discredit Israel in the eyes of the Almighty, by seducing them to commit immorality. The background to this story is filled in by the following excerpt from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a) which discusses the subject:

Balaam said to them: Their God detests immorality. The Israelites hanker after linen garments. Let me give you some advice. Set up stalls and install in them harlots to sell them linen wares … When the Israelites were eating and drinking and rejoicing and strolling in the market place, she would say to him: Thou art like one of the family, sit down and choose for thyself! Gourds of Ammonite wine stood by her … Said she to him: Wouldst thou drink a cup of wine? As soon as he had drunk it, the evil inclination burned within him and he said to her: Yield to me! She then took her idol out of her bosom and said to him: Worship this! He said to her: Am I not a Jew? Said she to him: What carest thou … moreover I shall not yield top thee till thou has repudiated the Law of Moses thy Teacher, as iot is stated (Hosea 9:10): "They went to Baal Peor, and separated themselves onto that shame; and their abominations were according as they loved".

At the end of the foregoing sidra, it is related how Pinchas stepped into the breach to turn away the wrath of God. In his zeal for his God, he slew a man on the spur of the moment, without trial, or offering previous warning, without legal testimony being heard, and in defiance of all the procedures of judicial examination prescribed by the Torah, which in practice render a conviction well nigh impossible. His deed of summary justice, taking the law into his hands, constituted a dangerous precedent, from the social, moral and educational angle. Yet what has the Torah to comment on his action?

And the Lord spoke unto Moses saying:

Pinchas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, while that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. (25:10-11)

It sounds strange that such a reward is prescribed for such a deed.

The Sages in the Jerusalem Talmud state that Pinchas ' deed did not meet with approval of the religious leaders of his time, that is of Moses and the elders. One of them goes so far as to say that they wanted to excommunicate him, had not the Holy Spirit leapt forth and declared:

And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant Of an everlasting priesthood; &9;Because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement For the children of Israel.

Rabbi Baruch Epstein, the author of the Pentateuch commentary Torah Temimah, interprets the attitude of the Sages in the following manner:

Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really prompted by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Sages wished to excommunicate Pinchas , had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine.

Rabbi Kook makes a similar point in his commentary to the Prayer Book on the Birkat haminim (Blessing against the Heretics) which occurs in the weekday amida. This prayer beginning "For the slanderers let there be no hope…" breathes vengeance on those traitorous to their people. Curiously enough, this unusually bitter prayer was formulated in its present form by the Talmudic sage known as Samuel Ha-katan distinguished for his love of his fellow creatures and whose motto, according to Pirke Avot, was enshrined in the verse (Proverbs 24,17): "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth."

Rabbi Kook explains:

Any sage distinguished for his piety and learning is capable of formulating prayers breathing sentiments of mercy and love. But such a prayer as this one , so full of hate and condemnation

Is bound to arouse the private feelings of animosity and spite, on the part of the author, against the enemies and persecutors of his people. Such a prayer must therefore originate with one noted for the holiness and purity of character and entire lack of the passion of hatred. Such a man was Samuel Ha-katan. One could be sure that he was dominated by completely unselfish considerations and inspired by the purest of motives, and had removed from his heart all private feelings of hatred for the persecutors of his people.

Now, perhaps, it is easier to understand the connecting link between Pinchas ' deed, terrible in itself, and the reward prescribed byGod:

Behold I give unto him my covenant of peace.  (25:12)

We do not need to accept Abarvanel's suggestion that it implied Divine protection against the next-of kin of the victim, Zimri, who was of a distinguished family, and who would, no doubt, wish to avenge his death. The covenant of peace need not be interpreted As a Divine guarantee of personal safety from molestation, but rather in the sense understood by rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the renowned principal of Volozhin Yeshiva in his commentary Ha'amek Davar:

The Divine promise of a covenant of peace constitutes rather a guarantee of protection against the inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being, without due process of law is liable to cause.

The Neziv (Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) expressed this idea in the following manner:

In reward for running away the wrath of the Holy One blessed be He, He blessed him with the attribute of peace, that he should not be quiock-tempered or angry. Since, it is only natural that such a deed as Pinchas ' should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterwrd, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of soul.