“The Conundrum of Pinchas: Do His Actions Set an Unacceptable Precedent?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we encounter the final chapter of the story of the zealotry of Pinchas, son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the High Priest. The actual description of Pinchas’s zealous act is found in Numbers 25, the last chapter of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak.

The people of Israel had settled in Shee’tim, where the men began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. The Moabite women invited the Israelite men to feast with them and subsequently seduced them to worship Baal Peor. In response to G-d’s wrath, Moses called upon the judges of Israel to avenge the leaders of the orgy. At that moment, a brazen Prince of the tribe of Simeon, Zimri the son of Salu, confronted Moses and the elders at the entrance of the Tent of Assembly and committed a public act of harlotry with a Midianite princess, Cozbi the daughter of Zur.

Pinchas stood up from amidst the assembly and, with spear in hand, pierced Zimri and Cozbi, killing them both. A plague, which had already begun with the initial acts of harlotry, now ceased, but 24,000 Israelites had already died.

The story of Pinchas is particularly unsettling because it underscores how easy it was for the Midianite women to seduce the Israelites to commit harlotry and to worship their idols. The story is additionally frightening because not only does Pinchas take the law into his own hand, but he is in fact rewarded for his zealotry and given the gift of “Brit k’hoo’not olam,” an eternal covenant of Priesthood (Numbers 25:13), for exacting vengeance for G-d, thus gaining atonement for the children of Israel.

The structure of this biblical text is also highly unusual. It is extremely rare for a Torah narrative, such as the story of Pinchas, to stop suddenly, in the middle, at the end of a parasha (parashat Balak). The story resumes in the following week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, only then revealing the names of the major protagonists. The break in the story certainly lends drama to the episode, but it leaves the reader rather befuddled because, normally, the Torah is an orderly and tightly-organized document, at least when it comes to narratives.

Why then is the harlotry of Israel included in the previous week’s parasha with the story of Bilaam and Balak? Undoubtedly, because the harlotry resulted from Bilaam and Balak’s attempt to destroy the Jewish people. When Bilaam saw that G-d would not allow him to curse the Jewish people, he resorted to the age-old, tried-and-tested strategy to defeat the Israelites–sending non-Jewish women to seduce the men with harlotry and idolatry. And, of course, it worked, only too well! So, quite correctly, the action belongs in Parashat Balak.

On the other hand, parashat Pinchas begins a new theme that runs through the closing chapters of the book of Numbers–plans for the People of Israel to settle in the land of Israel. In these chapters, Joshua is appointed to succeed Moses and forms a new army. A census is taken to determine the current population. The method of distributing the territory among the tribes are defined, as are the fine points of the laws of inheritance. We learn of new sacrifices that are to be offered only in the land of Israel, and finally Moses is given an opportunity to view the Promised Land from afar before he dies.

In his insightful analysis of parashat Pinchas, Rabbi Matis Weinberg (Frame Works) states that the zealotry of Pinchas is directly related to inheriting the land. The actions of Pinchas do not belong in parashat Balak, because seduction of Jewish men by non-Jewish women to commit harlotry and worship idols is an age-old story.

Now, however, we come to the point where the primary concern of the Torah is the ability of the Israelites to live proper lives in the land of Canaan. 31 different nations inhabit Canaan, and each of these nations are populated with attractive and seductive wives and daughters. Given how weak the people of Israel are, and how easily they succumb to temptation, will they be able to resist?

It is in response to this challenge that Pinchas now rises and declares: “G-d has given us His Torah. It is a document that enriches our lives, strengthens our families, and gives meaning to our existence. It is the Torah that directs the Jews to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People. We must harken to the words of G-d!”

“If not,” says Pinchas, “You will have to answer to me and to the likes of me! There will always be in the midst of Israel a few passionate Jews who will cry out, who are prepared to put their lives on the line in order to save Judaism. And I am one of them!”

The rabbis of the Talmud and the accompanying commentaries make eminently clear that the zealotry of Pinchas, which resulted in the killing of Zimri and Cozbi, was “Ho’ra’aht sha’ah,” an extra-legal ruling for that moment only. It was only with the approval of G-d and Moses that Pinchas was able to commit an act that resulted in the death of the two perpetrators. This otherwise treacherous deed was rendered acceptable at that particular moment because, in order to inherit the land of Israel, the Jewish people needed a quorum, a critical mass, of Jews who were prepared to stand up with passion and zeal and declare: “I know what everyone else is doing. I know that these actions are very popular, but I cannot abide by it, and I will do all in my power to make certain that Judaism and Jewish law is not redefined by those seeking to allow these inappropriate actions to become normative behavior within Jewish life.”

The action of Pinchas, taking the law into his own hand, which resulted in the death of the two people who challenged Moses, is certainly unsettling. It is a very rare exception to the inviolable rules of Jewish law, which normally demands that such judgments take place only in a court of law and only before a proper tribunal.

All of this notwithstanding, while the actions of Pinchas are exceptional, the passion of Pinchas should not be. In fact, this passion is a sorely needed commodity in our own times, as we fight the critical battles against assimilation and Jewish illiteracy, for which Moses, Aaron and Pinchas fought in ancient times.

May you be blessed.