“The ‘Zealotry’ of Pinchas”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens with the conclusion of the story that began in last week’s parasha of a tribal leader of Israel who committed a lewd public act with a Midianite woman.

In parashat Pinchas the protagonists are identified as Zimri the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi the daughter of Zur, a Midianite princess.

The Midrash portrays the brazen act of Zimri and Cozbi as a direct challenge to Moses’ authority and personal integrity. The Midrash states that Zimri approached Moses demanding to know whether he could cohabit with Cozbi, the Midianite princess. When Moses categorically prohibited the act, Zimri directly challenged Moses by saying: “Why then were you [Moses] permitted to cohabit with a Midianite woman [Tzipporah]?!”

Of course, Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah had occurred many years before the Torah was given and was therefore not subject to the laws of sanctification through marriage that had been given at Sinai. But Zimri wanted to be provocative, and he clearly succeeded!

Moses obviously felt compromised and seemed unable to respond to Zimri who proceeded to perform a carnal act with Cozbi in front of all the people. Into the void stepped a young relative of Moses, the grandson of his brother Aaron, whose name was Pinchas.

At least according to the Midrash, Pinchas knew well what it meant to be subject to public embarrassment and scorn. The Torah (Leviticus 9) records that on the first day of Nissan, in the second year of the people’s travels in the wilderness, the Tabernacle was sanctified and dedicated. On that same day the priests were invested into the priesthood. Despite being Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas the son of Elazar, was not designated to serve as a priest together with his father and his uncles.

The skeptics of Israel, of whom there are always many, immediately noted the failure of Pinchas to become a priest. Looking for a reason to explain why Pinchas was not invested, they ridiculed him, pointing out that Pinchas was obviously not worthy of the priesthood because, on his mother’s side, he was the grandson of Jethro the idolater, who offered fattened animals as a sacrifice to the idols. They began to refer to Pinchas by the name “Ben Puti,” the son of one who fattens!

Obviously stunned by the actions of Zimri and Cozbi, neither Moses, Aaron or any of the seventy elders who witnessed the travesty responded to this brazen challenge. Pinchas, who had spent much of his life fending off critics and attackers, felt compelled to step in to defend the dignity of G-d and Moses.

The Al-mighty subsequently rewards Pinchas for his heroic actions with a “Brit Shalom” (Numbers 25:12), G-d’s covenant of peace, as well as “Brit K’hoo’not Olam (Numbers 25:13), the covenant of an eternal priesthood, because of the vengeance that he exacted on the enemies of G-d, as well as for bringing about atonement for the sins of the Children of Israel.

Through his courageous act, Pinchas showed that he was not at all a zealot, but rather a seeker of peace. Pinchas’ actions were motivated by his concern that Zimri’s act of immorality would cause resounding harm to the people. A plague had broken out among the people and Pinchas felt compelled to act in order to save the nation. It was because of Pinchas that the plague that had struck the people of Israel was now stayed. In this way, Pinchas showed that he was a faithful descendant of his grandfather Aaron, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, who deeply loves G-d’s creatures and brings them closer to heaven (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:12).

Pinchas’ life can be compared to the verse in the Hallel prayer, (Psalms 118:22): “Eh’ven muh’ah’soo ha’bonim hoy’ta l’rosh pee’nah,” the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. While thousands of men and women witnessed the outrageous act of Zimri and Cozbi, not one had the courage to speak up or to act. Suddenly, out of the shadows, Pinchas emerges to seize the moment and respond to the crisis.

It is therefore not surprising that, according to the mystical tradition, Pinchas is rewarded with eternal life, perpetuated in the spirit of Elijah the prophet.

As the rabbis of the Talmud say: “Yesh koh’neh oh’lamo b’sha’ah achat,” there are those who acquire their entire world in a single moment (Avodah Zara, 10b).

May you be blessed.

The fast of the 17th of Tammuz will be observed this week on Thursday, July 13th, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to its ultimate destruction.