“Pinchas and King David”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the close of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak, we read of the zealous act of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who speared to death a Jewish leader and a Midianite woman who were committing a public act of harlotry in front of the people.

In this week’s parasha, we learn that the perpetrators who died were both distinguished people, whose names were Zimri the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, and Cozbi the daughter of Tzur, one of the leaders of Midian.

In the opening verses of parashat Pinchas, G-d informs Moses that Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, will be rewarded for turning back G-d’s wrath from upon the Children of Israel. We learn that only because of Pinchas, did G-d not destroy the Children of Israel in His vengeance.

In Numbers 25:12-13 the Torah then declares, לָכֵן אֱמֹר, הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם. וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם, תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵא־לֹקָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל , Therefore, say: “Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him, and his offspring after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his G-d and he atoned for the Children of Israel.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asks the following cogent question: Pinchas commits an act of killing in G-d’s name and he and his progeny are rewarded by being elevated to the priesthood, where they will serve in the Tabernacle or Temple for all time. On the other hand, King David, who fought many wars on behalf of G-d, was told that because he had spilled so much blood in battle, he would not be allowed to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Only King David’s son, Solomon, would build the Temple.

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that both King David and Pinchas performed acts that were legally justified and through which G-d’s name was sanctified throughout the world.

Rabbi Soloveitchik proceeds to deliver an extensive discourse on pacifism, emphasizing, that while Judaism is a religion of peace, it is not a pacifist religion. He argues that Jews must stand up for themselves, and those who fail to do so will ultimately surrender everything to evil.

Why were King David’s actions, which brought sanctity to G-d’s name, considered a liability? They should have been regarded as assets. The fact that King David was a warrior for G-d, should have confirmed David’s claim to be designated the builder of the sanctuary. The fact that David united the people, in addition to his many heroic military exploits, should have granted him a priority over others for constructing the Temple. After all, the battles he fought were the battles of G-d.

Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that before one can focus on constructing the Sanctuary, it is necessary to achieve peace by defeating all of Israel’s enemies. It was David who achieved this peace. And, even though Solomon was allowed to build the Temple, his kingdom was to come apart soon after his death, when the Ten Tribes, under the leadership of Jeroboam, would withdraw from the kingdom and form the northern Kingdom of Israel.

Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that the reason that Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land was not because of any sin or shortcoming, but rather because the land was not yet ready for permanent holiness. That holiness would have to wait, and come later in the time of Ezra. Furthermore, had Moses entered the land, the land would have immediately become entirely holy, automatically heralding the Messiah. The Al-mighty felt however, that the world was not yet ready for the Messiah.

Similarly, with King David. Had King David been allowed to build the Temple, the Temple, because of David’s exalted status, would have lasted forever. But, the world was not ready for the eternal Temple. But when it will be ready, it will be King David and his descendant, the Messiah, who will build it. Although David was surely worthy of building the Temple, the world was not yet worthy.

Rabbi Soloveitchik concludes, “Fighting a just and righteous battle for Hashem’s name does not disqualify one from serving in His Temple–-if anything, it prepares one for that service as we see with Pinchas. David’s wars should have, in fact, made him the perfect agent to build the Temple, except that he was too perfect.”

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s analysis still fails to explain why, even though David was not allowed to build the Temple, Pinchas was given the eternal covenant of Priesthood. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s grandfather, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik asked the question, “How could Pinchas be rewarded with a covenant of peace? After all, G-d rewards and punishes “measure for measure” and Pinchas’ actions were actions of violence and bloodshed?”
Reb Chaim suggests that outwardly Pinchas’ behavior appeared bloody and vicious, but his inner motives were in fact guided by a desire for peace and well-being among the Jewish people. This fact is testified to by the Torah which states (Numbers 25:11), that “Pinchas…has turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel…and because of him I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance.”.

Reb Chaim distinguishes between the true zealot, whose actions are intended to honor G-d, and who has the best interests of society at heart, and the false zealot, who is motivated by self-righteous and fanatical belief. Reb Chaim explains that while both housewives and cats hate mice, the former hates having to kill them and hopes never to see any, whereas the cat eagerly awaits catching more mice.

Reb Chaim further explains that the difference between the two is evident in their attitudes toward violence. The truly pious person agonizes when, after all options have been exhausted, they feel they must resort to violence. The person motivated by false zeal secretly celebrates having to do so.

Killing was the last thing that Pinchas wanted to do. He was brokenhearted over the fact that he had no other recourse. His primary intention was to bring sanctity to the camp of Israel and to save the people from the plague that had already killed 24,000 people. It is in this merit that G-d gave him the בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם , the everlasting covenant of the priesthood, which he so eminently deserved.

May you be blessed.

The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) is observed this year on Tuesday, July 11, 2017, 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 Tisha b’Av that will be observed on Monday night and Tuesday, July 31st and August 1st.