“Pinchas Avenges the Midianites”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In last week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we read of how Pinchas the son of Elazar kills Zimri and Cozbi, who had performed a public act of harlotry. For his actions, Pinchas is rewarded with (Numbers 25:12) “B’riti Shalom,” G-d’s covenant of peace and (Numbers 25:13) a “Brit k’hoo’naht oh’lahm,” a covenant of everlasting priesthood.

Immediately following this fateful episode, G-d commands Moses to declare war against the Midianites. According to the Midrash, when Balaam saw that he was unable to curse Israel, he resorted to an old foolproof formula to defeat the Israelites, sending the Moabite and Midianite women to seduce the Israelite men. In Numbers 25:9, we learn that 24,000 Israelite men died in a plague–a Divine punishment for their iniquitous behavior.

In parashat Matot, the first of this week’s double parshiot, Matot-Masei, 12,000 Israelite soldiers are mobilized to wage war against the Midianites. Scripture, in Numbers 31:6, states that the soldiers are led by none other than Pinchas the son of Elazar the Priest, “La’tzah’vah, oo’chlay ha’kodesh va’cha’tzohtz’roht ha’t’roo’ah b’yah’doh,” who goes out to war with the sacred vessels, and with the trumpets for sounding in his hand.

The Israelites battle valiantly and vanquish the army of Midian, taking the Midianite wives, children, cattle and all of the Midianites’ belongings as spoils of war. All the cities of Midian and encampments were then burned with fire.

Despite this great victory, some Midianites survived, as there are records of Midianites who live in later periods of Jewish history. The commentators conclude that only the Midianite clans who resided in the neighborhood of Moab were decimated. Those who resided elsewhere were not harmed.

The rabbis ask why the Moabites were not punished along with the Midianites, because they too were involved in the seduction of Jewish men. Rashi explains that the Moabites had a seemingly valid excuse for attacking Israel, because they were fearful of the Israelites who were encamped at the borders of their territory. The Midianites, however, were not threatened by the Israelites. Indeed, they were motivated by sheer hatred. Rashi also suggests that the Moabites were spared because of an exceptional woman who was to emerge from Moab, Ruth the Moabitess.

Rashi questions why Pinchas was specifically chosen to lead the battle against Midian, and not his father, Elazar, the High Priest? Rashi cites the well-known principle (Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 10:5) that one who begins the fulfillment of a commandment (mitzvah) is encouraged to finish it. As Pinchas had killed Cozbi the daughter of Zur, it was he who was chosen to lead the battle against the seducing nation.

Citing an alternative explanation, Rashi states that Pinchas was chosen to lead the battle against the Midianites so that he could avenge the actions of the Midianites against Joseph, the ancestor of his mother, who had been sold to Egypt by the Midianite merchants (Genesis 37:36).

An additional explanation offered by Rashi is that Pinchas was “Meshuach Milchamah,” a specially designated priest whose task it was to counsel the army before battle, and encourage them not to lose heart. The Kohen who leads the people out to battle would also wear the sacred garments of the High Priest, and would have the ability to inquire of G-d through the Urim v’Tumim of the breastplate, if the need should arise.

There may very well be an additional reason that Pinchas was chosen to lead the troops in avenging the Midianites. In Jewish law, witnesses who testify in capital cases are required to serve as executioners if the accused is convicted.

As we have noted in previous studies, Jewish law does its very best to discourage the actual implementation of capital punishment. By excluding women as capital witnesses, the Jewish legal system eliminates fifty percent of the witness pool and makes it almost impossible for anyone to ever be convicted due to the very technical and detailed requirements of testimony. Another way of discouraging witnesses, and to make certain that there would be no inaccuracies in the witness’ testimony, was to require the witnesses to personally administer the punishment of those convicted.

Although the priest designated to lead the people in battle does not physically fight, there does seem to be a parallel here with Pinchas and capital witnesses. Pinchas was the first to step forward and accuse Cozbi and Zimri of harlotry. While it is true that Pinchas took the law into his own hands, he is now charged with leading the battle against the entire Midianite people, who are accused of idolatry and harlotry.

As previously noted, Pinchas was rewarded by G-d for his act of zealotry with an eternal covenant of peace. How could a person like Pinchas, who violently executed Zimri and Cozbi, and now leads the people in battle against the entire Midianite nation, ever be a faithful representative of G-d’s “eternal covenant of peace?”

This conundrum brings to mind the well-known dictum of the Midrash Rabbah, Ecclesiastes 7:10, warning that “one who is merciful in a time when he should be cruel, will ultimately be cruel in a time when he should be merciful.” It was Pinchas’ so-called act of cruelty that brought peace and tranquility to the people of Israel, and provided stability to the surrounding areas.

It is an important message to bear in mind, as Israel today is increasingly surrounded by hostile enemies who wish to not only vanquish Israel, but to uproot and destroy the entire Jewish state. Only through heightened vigilance can this malicious plot be foiled.

May you be blessed.