A Misunderstood Personality
At conclusion of last week’s parsha, Balak, we are told that 24,000 men from the Israelite nation died. The cause of their death was the result of a plague brought by Hashem. As the result of a devious plan formulated by the prophet Balaam and enacted by Balak and his nation, these men fell prey to sexual misconduct and idol worship. The conflagration only ceases when Pinchas takes independent action and kills simultaneously a Jewish man and his Midianite consort.
This week’s portion, Pinchas, begins with God rewarding Pinchas for “turning My anger away from the Children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the Children of Israel because of My zeal.” (Bamidbar 21:11). Apparently, without the action of Pinchas, the entire nation of Israel would have been destroyed. What was so great a sin that God would have destroyed the entire nation, and how did Pinchas bring a halt to the devastation?
The Jewish nation is designated to be “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”(Shemot 19:6) As a kingdom of priests Jews stand for and are to teach the world the true ideas about God. Holiness is brought about by internal control over our base instincts. Idol worship and sexual immorality represent the complete antithesis to God’s national designation of and purpose for the Jewish people. Balaam’s diabolical plan, implemented by Balak, was corrupting the nation such that it would no longer be capable of fulfilling God’s design.
A national desecration of God’s name was taking place. As a result, a serious national calamity was occurring. Here was the nation taken out of servitude from Egypt by God and given a new way of life at Mt. Sinai just 40 years earlier. Now the nation was succumbing to the very lifestyle they were charged to abandon. Total destruction of the nation was at hand. In steps Pinchas.
We have a common notion of a religious zealot. Today, for example, Islamic jihadists react with fatwas and murderous anger at any perceived insult to their “prophet” or religion. Anyone who publishes an article or cartoon that can be taken in any way as disrespectful or disparaging of Islam puts his or her life in jeopardy.
In contrast, Pinchas was not a person given over to anger, wild outbursts of emotion or rash decisions. He was not a malcontent or disgruntled personality lacking in human compassion. He was not “a religious zealot” in the common parlance. He was one of the three top disciples of Moses. He was a man whose intellectual and personal perfection were on the highest level. He was the son of Aaron and like his father Pinchas was a רודף שלום, “pursuer of peace.” In this one situation, he lawfully arose and took the action he did but only after Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon engaged in public sexual immorality with the Midianite princess, Kazbi.
Pinchas acted only out of his great love of Hashem with complete absence of any personal anger or animosity towards any fellow human being. He understood the great danger to the nation, allowing a prince and leader of the nation to publicly and blatantly disregard fundamental principles of God’s Torah law. Passivity here would create a national desecration God’s name and render the existence of the Jewish nation purposeless.
As a reward for his heroic action, God elevates Pinchas to the priesthood and gives him a special “covenant of peace.” These two endorsements by God demonstrate that Pinchas in fact was a man operating on the highest level of personal perfection. First, he deserved to be a priest and teacher of the true ideas of God. Second, his sole motivation in this situation was to stop the national desecration of God’s name in the world and restore the nation to its designated purpose.
Our rabbis of the Talmud make clear that no one then or today possesses the requisite qualities to respond to a national calamity as did Pinchas. Nevertheless, his personhood is worthy of our study, praise and emulation. Hence, forever his actions are recorded for us and all future generations in our holy Torah.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan