“The Conundrum of Pinchas: Do His Actions Set an Unacceptable Precedent?”
(updated and revised from Pinchas 5764-2004)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens with an act of fierce zealotry committed by Pinchas, son of Elazar, grandson of Aaron the High Priest in response to a lewd act that was performed publicly by a prominent man and woman, as a gesture of defiance to G-d and Moses. The actual description of the sinful act is found in Numbers 25, the final chapter of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak.

The people of Israel had settled in Shittim, 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 their idol, Baal Peor, inciting G-d’s wrath. In response, 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, Kozbi the daughter of Zur.

Standing up from amidst the assembly, Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, with spear in hand, pierced Zimri and Kozbi, killing them both. A plague, that had already begun with the initial acts of harlotry, now ceased, but 24,000 Israelites had already perished.

The story of Pinchas is particularly unsettling for several reasons. Firstly, 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 disturbing because not only does Pinchas take the law into his own hand, but he is, in fact, rewarded for his zealotry, and given (Numbers 25:13), the gift of בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–an eternal covenant of Priesthood for exacting vengeance for G-d, and 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 suddenly stop in the middle, at the end of last week’s parasha—Balak, and resume in the following week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas. Only then are the names of the major protagonists revealed. The break in the story certainly lends drama to the episode, but it also leaves the reader rather befuddled, since normally the Torah is an orderly and tightly-organized document, at least when it comes to narratives.

Why then is the story of the actual harlotry of Israel included in the previous week’s parasha together with the story of Balaam and Balak? The commentators suggest that the harlotry is linked to Balaam and Balak’s initial unsuccessful attempt to destroy the Jewish people. When Balaam saw that G-d would not allow him to curse the Jewish people, he resorted to the age-old, tried-and-tested, fail-proof strategy to defeat the Israelites–sending non-Jewish women to seduce the Jewish 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 is defined, as are the fine points of the laws of inheritance. We learn of new ritual 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 idolatry is an age-old story.

Now, however, we come to the point where the primary concern of the Torah is whether the Israelites will have the ability 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 morally 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 it eminently clear that the zealotry of Pinchas, which resulted in the killing of Zimri and Kozbi, was הוֹרָאַת שָׁעָה, 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 critical mass of Jews who were prepared to stand up with passion and zeal and declare: “We know what everyone else is doing. We know that these actions are very popular, but we cannot abide by them, and we will do all in our 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 Judaism and its ultimate value for human life, 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, such passion is sorely needed 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.

Please note: The Fast of Shiv’ah Asar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Thursday, July 6, 2023, from dawn until nightfall. The fast day commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction on Tisha b’Av. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Week” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av, that will be observed on Wednesday night and Thursday, July 26 and 27, 2023.

Have an easy and meaningful fast.