Parsha Pinchas 5771: The Magnitude of the Sin Compelling Pinchas’ Zealousness

by Moshe Burt

We learned in Parsha Balak that Bila’am’s scheme to seduce Jewish men to avodah zora by way of immorality (co-habitation) resulted in a plague which killed 24,000 Jewish men until Pinchas’ act brought the plague to a halt. However, Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 4 and 5 read;

And Hashem, said to Moshe: Take all of the chiefs of the people, and hang them up unto the Hashem in the face of the sun, that (there) may turn away the fierce anger of Hashem from Israel. And Moshe said unto the judges of Israel: Slay you every one his men that have joined themselves unto the Ba’al Peor.

A few years ago, Rabbi Chaim Zev Malinowitz spoke out what was, for this author, a Chidush which shed more light than previously on the significance and magnitude of Pinchas’ act of slaying Zimri and Kozbi as they co-habited.

Rabbi Malinowitz asked how it could be that the B’nai Yisrael, through 200 plus years in Mitzriyim and throughout their wandering in Bamidbar until now, maintained a derech which precluded illicit co-habitation, and yet have gone so fundamentally wrong on the eve of entry into Eretz Yisrael? He brought a Medrash Rabbah indicating that Hashem brought a stream of water from Sodom to Shittim where the B’nai Yisrael were encamped and suggested that the ingesting the water apparently brought about a test of B’nai Yisrael which many failed.

Rabbi Malinowitz cites Rashi on Perek 25, posuk 4 and 5, particularly posuk 5:

Rashi on posuk 4:

Take all of the chiefs of the people — that they shall judge the worshippers of Peor

And hang them up — the worshippers…

Rashi on posuk 5:

Slay you everyone his men — Everyone of the judges of Israel killed 2 (offenders);and the judges of Israel numbered eighty-eight thousand, as it is stated in Sanhedrin (folio 38).

If we do the math, if 88,000 judges each hung and killed 2 sinners, that’s 176,000 of the Am Yisrael who died by hanging. Now add to that the 24,000 who died in the plague and we see that the Chet of the Ba’al Peor took the lives of 1/3 of B’nai Yisrael before Pinchas’ impailment of Zimri and Kozbi as they co-habited brought an end to the death.

Rabbi Malinowitz also added, citing sections of Tanach, that, for example, Yehoshua noted decades after the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael that the B’nai Ysrael are still suffering for the sin of the Ba’al Peor and that full tikkun for the chet will only come in times of Moshiach. He indicates that Hashem did an abundant favor for B’nai Yisrael in permitting them to enter Eretz Yisrael in wake of the chait.

This author reasons further that, just as only 20% of B’nai Yisrael were up to the test of taking the Korban Pesach, slaughtering it and applying the da’am to their doorposts, so too 1/3 of the new generation in Bamidbar failed a crucial test just before entry into Eretz Ysrael.

Are we of our generation, where indifference, self-centeredness, short attention spans, callousness, insensitivity and disdain seem to dominate, any more righteous than the 1/3rd of the new generation of Bamidbar who died for the illicit nature of the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or?

Or of a later generation where the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died because they showed each other insufficient respect?

To return to the discussion of last week’s Parsha Balak, even though perhaps falling short of the magnitude of Zimri’s aveirah with Kosbi, at what point is the extent of one’s sin outside of the pale? At what point is this sinner chayev cheirem from the Kehal in this world and forfeits even the most fundamental merit in Olam Haba — in Shemayim — in the next world? At what point does such a sinner not even merit the neshama of a “toe-nail”?

That even some Jews, as well as leadership, could be capable of treating their fellow Jews with such deaf-ear, blind-eye, nonchalance, lip-service or worse seems every bit as contemptible as Zimri’s illicit co-habitation with Kosbi in the Camp by way of the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or.

And yet we learn from Midrashim on Parsha Pinchas that there was much dispute in The Camp as to Pinchas’ action in slaying Zimri and Kozbi. There were those who wanted Pinchas killed for killing another Jew; quoted by Rabbi Artscroll (Stone Chumash page 876, Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 11):

“This grandson of someone who fattened calves to be sacrificed to idols” had the gall to kill a prince in Israel! [Pinchas’ father was married to a daughter of Yitro, a former Midianite Priest, who was called Putiel…]

So we return to our discussion from last week’s Parsha Balak concerning Zimri’s distorted model and “novel, misleading ideology”; his false, bogus proposition of “acting for the sake of Shemayim (Heaven).”

Shem Mishmuel (Shem Mishmuel, English by Rabbi Zvi Belovsky, pages 361-362) notes that while a “sin for the sake of Heaven” could theoretically have a place within Jewish life, it is unworkable if attempted in practice:

An action must be absolutely free of any self-interest or motive other than serving Hashem and realizing His aims. Without this condition, the act is a sin like any other.

Shem Mishmuel then cites a Chazal (Vayikra Rabbah 14:5):

It is impossible for even the exceptionally pious not to have sin as at least a fraction of their motive.

In short, it would seem that in order to have been able to act as Pinchas did, he would have had to be perfectly righteous, to be “absolutely free of any self-interest or motive other than serving Hashem and realizing His aims.”

Shem Mishmuel also notes that commentators render Pinchas as a gilgul of Kayin, but continues that Pinchas took Kayin’s aggressive, self-centered, jealous traits which resulted in his killing of Hevel, and elevated them to a level of acting only L’Shem Shemayim.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe noted in regard to Pinchas’ action (Studies in the Weekly Parsha, by Yehuda Nachshoni, Parsha Balak, page 1113);

“He impailed the woman through the belly”; “He aimed his spear between their male and female members, proving that he did not kill them in vain.” Why would we think that he had killed them in vain? Rather, the Torah here alludes to the law that a zealot has free reign only while the act is in progress.

And R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (the new Hirsch Chumash published by Feldheim in 2005 and translated to English by Daniel Haberman) has a lot to say about the magnitude of the sin compelling Pinchas’ zealous action. R’ Hirsch provides translation of a few of the last posukim of Parsha Balak (Perek 25, posuk 6, page 524 and posukim 14 and 15, page 530) and commentaries:

“…A man from among B’nai Yisrael… brought the Midianite woman…” (posuk 6)

“The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman was Zimrim son of Salu, a prince of… the tribe of Shimon.” (posuk 14)

“The name of the slain Midianite woman [was] Kozbi, daughter of Tzur; he was the head of the peoples… in Midian.” (posuk 15)

From [subsequent] verse 14 we learn he [who committed the sin] was one of the tribal princes. Nevertheless, here he is described simply as “a man from among the Children of Israel”, …apparently in order to consider his act solely [that]… of a “Jewish man.” The fact that he was a prince and should… have served as a model of moral purit certainly added to the seriousness of the crime. And Pinchas’ act appears all the more exalted considering that the person from whom exacted Torah’s vengeance was above him in rank. Hence it is fitting that the Torah in verses 14 and 15 informs… of the ranks of both the man and the woman. Nevertheless, the seriousness of the crime… does not depend on the fact that the person who committed it was a prince. What makes the crime so reprehensible is that it was committed by a “Jewish man.”

A man of B’nai Yisrael had, with the Midianit [Midianite woman] flouted Hashem, His Torah and Israel. Therefore he became liable to punishment at the hands of a zealot… moved by zeal for Hashem, …Torah, and for Israel…

Hirsch then writes on the merit of Pinchas’ act for which Hashem conveyed upon him the Kehunah (Perek 25, posuk 13, page 529):

…Just as the tribe of Levi attained the rank… by it’s actions at the sin of the golden calf and then was expressly chosen for this office, the same happened here: In his act of rescue, Pinchas acted as a Kohen…; he carried out in actual practice the atoning devotion which the avodah of the Kohen performs symbolically in the Sanctuary [Mishkan, Beit Hamikdash]. That is why he was elevated the the rank of Kohen [everlasting Priesthood] after his act.

Thus Hashem conveyed the Kahuna, and eternal life upon upon Pinchas in vindication regarding the vicious, false accusations against him and in recognition of the justness and Kiddush Hashem of his action.

May we, the B’nai Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole, that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard, captive Gilad Shalit and the other MIAs be liberated alive returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem. May we have the courage to prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nai Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem V’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bim hay v’yameinu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!

Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.