“Learning by Example”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, G-d rewards Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel by zealously avenging those who defied G-d and Moses by publicly committing immorality in front of the People of Israel.

At the end of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we learned that two people, an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, challenged Moses by committing this public act of lewdness. In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, the Torah identifies the two prominent people as Zimri, the son of Salu, who was the prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Cozbi the daughter of Zur, one of the leaders of the Midianite nation. By stabbing both perpetrators with a spear and ending their lives, Pinchas’ action also stopped a devastating plague that had taken the lives of 24,000 people who were part of the orgy of immorality.

In Numbers 25:11, the Al-mighty tells Moses to say to the people: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, 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. G-d rewards Pinchas with a בְּרִית שָׁלוֹם, Brit Shalom, the covenant of peace, and confirms that Pinchas and his progeny will be part of the eternal covenant of the priesthood, for having been zealous for G-d and for making atonement for the Children of Israel.

Rashi states that the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as the son of Elazar, and specifically the grandson of Aaron, the priest, as a response to the humiliation to which the tribes had been subjecting Pinchas. According to tradition, Pinchas was constantly teased and harassed that he was the descendant of פּוּטִי, “Puti,”–that his mother’s father (Jethro aka Putiel), fattened calves for idolatry. Therefore, says Rashi, scripture purposely and prominently traced Pinchas’s ancestry back to the noble lineage of his grandfather Aaron.

Many commentators are troubled by the actions of Pinchas. How could Pinchas take the law into his own hands, and execute these two people for their actions, without bringing them to formal judgment? Furthermore, what are the origins of Pinchas’ zealotry? He is, after all, the grandson of Aaron, a man who loved peace and who was a consummate pursuer of peace (Ethics of the Fathers 1:12).

Some of the commentators note that the act of harlotry was performed as a challenge to Moses, and when Moses berated Zimri for being with a Midianite woman, Zimri responded, “but after all, you also took a Midianite woman (Tzipporah) for a wife.”  When Moses did not respond, Pinchas took his mentor’s silence as a signal to step in. Through Pinchas’ zealous actions, the orgy ended, and the plague that had killed 24,000 people ceased.

Rashi, in parashat Balak, Numbers 25:7, providing more detail to the encounter, says that when Pinchas saw Zimri and Cozbi commit their vile act, he was reminded of the law and said to Moses, “I have learned from you, הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִּית קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, that one who has relations with a non-Jewish woman may be killed by zealots.” Moses said to Pinchas, “The one who proclaims the law in public, let him be the messenger.” Whereupon, Pinchas immediately took the spear in his hand and killed the perpetrators.

Rabbi Chaim Halevi Pardes, in his studies on the weekly parasha entitled, Min Ha’mah’ah’yan ahl HaTorah, suggests that when Rashi explains Pinchas’ relationship to Aaron the priest, he refers to the actions of Aaron in Numbers 17:12-13. In parashat Shelach after the death of Korach and his cohorts, it records that Aaron took the incense pan and ran into the congregation after the plague had already begun. Presenting the incense and achieving atonement for the people, Aaron stood between the dead and the living and the plague stopped. Rashi emphasizes that Aaron risked his life by literally taking hold of the angel of death and forcing him to stop harming the people.

Pinchas, inspired by his grandfather’s brave actions, subjected himself to danger and struggled with the sinners in order to stop the anger of G-d. It was in this manner that Pinchas hoped, like Aaron his grandfather before him, to bring peace upon Israel and to confirm their sanctity. It is for this reason that scripture attributes the lineage of Pinchas to his grandfather, Aaron, who had a profound influence on Pinchas and served as a great role model for him to emulate.

Heroic acts often inspire others to perform heroic acts. It is therefore probably hardly a coincidence that scripture records in parashat Pinchas, Numbers 26:11, וּבְנֵי קֹרַח לֹא מֵתוּ, that the sons of Korach did not die.

According to tradition, the sons of Korach broke from the passionate rebellion of their father and instead chose to follow the directives of their great teacher, Moses. This decision, which saved their lives, enabled them to become the great poets who composed many psalms, including a special psalm that is read before the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana. (Pinchas 5765-2005)

Where did the sons of Korach get the courage to swim against the tide of rebellion that had captured the imagination of so many followers and to break with their families? It may very well be that the reason that parashat Korach follows on the heels of parashat Shelach and the story of the scouts and spies, is because the actions of Joshua and Caleb served as the model for the sons of Korach. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to see the truth, despite the mass hysteria that had taken hold of the people.

This example served the sons of Korach well, and despite the close family bond, they were able to disassociate from Korach and do the right thing.

The Talmud often uses the expression, מַעֲשֵׂי אָבוֹת סִימָן לְבָנִים, that the deeds of the fathers are often signposts for the children. Sometimes it works in a negative fashion, at other times it works in a most positive manner.

Pinchas, indeed, was a descendant of Aaron, both biologically and spiritually. That is why, despite his zealotry, his violent actions notwithstanding, G-d blesses Pinchas with the eternal blessing of peace.

May you be blessed.