“The Zealotry of Pinchas as Seen Through the Midrash”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, closed with the story of Pinchas’ zealotry. As we read in that text, a prominent Jewish leader had brought his non-Jewish paramour directly to Moses and in the sight of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, committed an act of harlotry. When Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Kohain (priest), saw this, he stood up from amidst the assembly, took a spear in his hand and pierced them both through the stomach, killing them.

In the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the Al-mighty lauds Pinchas for his actions and for turning back the wrath of G-d from the Children of Israel by zealously avenging G-d. Only because of Pinchas, says G-d, did He not consume the Children of Israel in His anger.

The Al-mighty then announces in Numbers 25:12: “Hineni no’tayn lo et b’ree’tee shalom,” Behold I give him [Pinchas] my covenant of peace. G-d further proclaims that from now on, Pinchas’s offspring will be part of the eternal covenant of the priesthood.

The identities of the sinful people are then revealed. The name of the slain Israelite man is Zimri, the son of Salu, a Prince of the tribe of Simeon. The Midianite woman is identified as Cozbi, the daughter of Zur, whose father was a prince in Midian.

The Midrash, cited by the great scholar Eliyahu KiTov (1912-1976, one of Israel’s most acclaimed religious writers), expands on the story of Pinchas and provides extensive background material allowing us to better understand what actually provoked Pinchas to act so brazenly.

The Midrash states that when Pinchas killed Zimri, he did not consult with the sages nor with Moses. He, in effect, performed this act of zealotry on his own cognizance. Pinchas’ visceral and violent reaction was not well received by the people. Those sympathetic followers of Pe’or (the Moabite idolatry), fearing for their lives, said, “If this was the fate of Zimri, who was so highly respected among the people, what then will be our fate?”

The majority of the people, including those who were loyal to G-d, derided Pinchas for his action saying, “Have you seen this ‘ben-Puti‘ [Putiel was one of the names of Jethro, who was an ancestor of Pinchas] who killed a prince in Israel, one of the elder princes?” Even the loyal followers of Moses wondered: “Pinchas could not be very G-d-fearing. After all, he defied our teacher Moses by not consulting him, acting as if he were the teacher.”

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohain, was not himself a priest. When Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests, Pinchas was not included. When Pinchas performed his seemingly impetuous act that aroused so much resentment among the people, it became common to hear people say: “Now we understand why Pinchas was not designated to serve as a Kohain. He does not possess the quality of loving-kindness of Aaron, his grandfather, nor does he possess the stature of Elazar, his father. Instead, he possesses a strange quality, an alien quality, the quality of quarrelsomeness, due probably to the fact that he is a descendant of the Midianites, who are quarrelsome [the name Midian means quarrel]. Behold, his maternal grandfather was a priest of Midian. Pinchas’ zealousness is not pure or done for the sake of heaven; it is a zealotry consumed with anger. Now it makes sense why Pinchas was never made a Kohain.”

Jethro, the High Priest of Midian, was one of the most important advisors to the King of Midian. Because of his stature and his wisdom, which surpassed that of all the wise men in Egypt, Pharaoh befriended Jethro and designated him to serve as one of Pharaoh’s closest counselors. Even though Jethro’s compassionate advice was often rejected, Pharaoh was still close to him, and Jethro was respected by all in Pharaoh’s palace. Despite Pharaoh’s ambivalence, Jethro continued to travel from Midian to Egypt whenever the opportunity presented itself because of the central importance of Egypt and Pharaoh in those days.

When Moses fled from Pharaoh and arrived in Midian, he came to Jethro’s house. Jethro was told by Moses that he was a refugee pursued by Pharaoh, and hid him in his home for several years as the agents of Pharaoh searched for Moses throughout the ancient Near East.

During the time that Jethro harbored Moses, he learned much about Moses’ origins, about his family back in Egypt, and about the people of Israel who were crying out from oppression and who thirsted for redemption. He also learned from Moses to recognize the one G-d of Israel, after he had already rejected the false gods of Midian.

Whenever Jethro went to Egypt, he would seek out the family of Moses, secretly visiting with Amram, the father of Moses, and other family members. When Jethro sought to marry off one of his seven daughters, because of his respect for the Israelites, he was determined to marry her off to a member of this nation, descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were now subjugated by Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

As his future son-in-law, Jethro chose one of the descendants of the family of the fabled Joseph. Jethro’s daughter gave birth to a female child who eventually married Elazar the son of Aaron. But the people of Israel began to ridicule Aaron for accepting a Midianite woman as a wife for his son Elazar. Despite the ridicule, Elazar and Jethro’s granddaughter married and had a child whom they called by the Egyptian name Panchas.

The people viewed this child as an “alien root” in the midst of the vineyard of Israel. They would say of the child, “His mother is Midianite and he himself is an Egyptian.”

When Pinchas performed his act of zealotry, the people of Israel got on his case again and said, “He does not come from noble stock. He is a Midianite. He is an Egyptian, the son of the Puti, and killed the exalted prince of Israel. Of course he is not a Kohain and was never worthy of being one. After all, his mother is a convert, who is forbidden to marry a Kohain. That is why he was not made a Kohain to begin with, since he cannot achieve atonement for the people of Israel. If Pinchas would serve, he would more likely arouse G-d’s wrath, jealousy and anger.”

The people were therefore taken aback when G-d announced to Moses that, “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohain, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel when he zealously avenged Me among them so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Behold I give him My Covenant of Peace.”

It doesn’t matter what the people think. The Al-mighty, who is able to see the inner-essence of the human being, changed his name. By adding one letter, yud, from the name of G-d Himself, his name became Pinchas. He was no longer to be called Panchas, the Egyptian.

No, this man is not an Egyptian and not the son of a Midianite, nor the son of a convert, but Pinchas the son of Elazar. His mother was not a convert, she was a daughter of a convert and was permitted to marry a Kohain. Moreover, at that time, before the giving of the Torah, everyone was regarded as a convert. You call him derisively “ben Putiel,” as if to say that his maternal grandfather, Jethro, stuffed calves to idolatry before he was converted to monotheism. I say let us give him this name as a badge of honor to recall that his maternal great-grandfather, Joseph, in one of history’s most heroic acts,”peet’payt b’yitz’roh,” wrestled with his passions and rejected Mrs. Potiphar!

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, is truly worthy of being a priest. Not only because of his descent from priests, but because he himself is like Aaron the Priest. Pinchas, like Aaron his grandfather, was able to turn back the anger of G-d and achieve atonement for the people of Israel. Pinchas is now a member of the Covenant of Peace that holds the entire world together.

Our sages have said that a leader of the community can only be designated to lead with the community’s consent. Here we see that G-d imposed Pinchas on the people to serve as a Kohain. Despite G-d’s appointment, according to the Midrash, the people refused to allow him to bring sacrifices or to serve as a priest for a very long time.

Only 15 years later, after the capture and the division of the land of Canaan, was Pinchas was allowed to serve as a Kohain. Scripture tells us in the Book of Joshua that after the capture and division of the land, the three tribes of Israel, Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe who had early on decided to settle on the east bank of the Jordan, returned to their homes and built an altar on the banks of the Jordan to sacrifice to G-d. This did not sit well with the other nine and a half tribes who viewed this as a rebellious act and a rejection of G-d. In Joshua 22 it is reported that the people gathered together an army and prepared for war.

Prior to the attack, Pinchas the son of Elazar the Priest, along with ten princes of the tribes, were sent across the Jordan to negotiate with the rebels. Pinchas, acting as spokesperson, reproved the prodigal tribes. The tribes backed off, agreeing not to use the altar. When Pinchas and the princes returned to Joshua, all the people acknowledged how effective Pinchas was in his efforts to restore peace between the different tribes. He was then accepted unanimously to serve as a Kohain and began to serve in the Tabernacle, offering up sacrifices and achieving atonement for the people. Pinchas, who merited longevity, served as a priest for many, many generations.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar B’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Sunday July 20th, 2008, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tish’ah Ba’Av.

Have a meaningful fast.