Parshat Pinchas 5779: Bila’am’s Plots, the Merit of Pinchas and Modern-Day “Misleading Ideology”

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua Pinchas is sponsored by Rabbi Joel and Shelly Padowitz and dedicated for a full and complete Refuah Shleima for Joel’s Grandfather, Yissachar ben Hindl. To the Padowitz family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

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Moshe Burt
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Parshat Pinchas 5779: Bilaam’s Plots, the Merit of Pinchas and Modern-Day “Misleading Ideology”

by Moshe Burt

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text,” Sefer Bamidbar (page 250) on Parshat Balak, writes context regarding the conclusion of Bila’am’s final attempt to destroy Am Yisrael. This context serves as a segue into our Parshat Pinchas:

Following Bila’am’s failed attempts at cursing the nation, the B’nei Yisrael are seduced by the “daughters of Moav” and fall prey to the licentious idolatry of Ba’al Peor. Hashem responds with a devastating plague that tragically claims twenty-four thousand victims from among the people.

…. A brief reference found later in Sefer Bamidbar [Perek 31, posuk 16, Parshat Matos, Artscroll Stone Chumash, page 907]
lays blame for this tragic event squarely at… the sorcerer Bila’am: “Behold! It was they [the Midianite women] who caused the B’nei Yisrael, by the word of Bila’am, to commit betrayal against Hashem regarding the matter of Peor; and the plague occured in the assembly of Hashem.” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 31, posuk 16 as rendered to English by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text”]

Rabbi Goldin, in his sefer “Unlocking The Torah Text,” Sefer Bamidbar (pages 250-251) refers to these events as “A Devastating Epilogue… to the Balak/Bilaam narrative.” R’ Goldin asks:

If the episode of Ba’al Peor can be traced to the scheming designs of Bilaam, why doesn’t Torah immediately say so?

Why record this tragic episode as an apparent epilogue…, omit any connection between the two stories, and then subsequently affirm such a connection, in a textual aside, much later in the text?

By “much later in the text,” R’ Goldin is referring to Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 31, posukim 15-16 (as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash):

“Moshe said to them [in context of the war with Midian], ‘…. Behold! — they [the Midianite women] caused the B’nei Yisrael, by the word of Bilaam, to commit betrayal of Hashem regarding the matter of Peor; and the plague occurred in the assembly of Hashem.'”

R’ Goldin then suggests a solution:

We recognize the… episode of Ba’al Peor not only as the epilogue, but as the event which drives the message of that entire story home.

…The Talmud maintains that Hashem’s transformation of Bilaam’s curses into blessings ultimately has very limited practical effect. Due to the sins of the B’nei Yisrael, the majority of these blessings revert back to their original curses. From this Rabbinic perspective the Balak/Bilaam story conveys a powerful, counter-intuitive lesson: Bilaam’s words, and other similar phenomena, do not matter at all. Ultimately our fate is determined by our own merit or guilt.

As the B’nei Yisrael emerge unscathed from Bilaam’s external threat, only to fall prey to their own shortcomings, the flow of events mirrors.. preaches…: We can blame no one else for our failures; our destiny is in our hands.

We are forced to realize the uncomfortable truth: Bilaam’s machinations would never have succeeded had he not found the B’nei Yisrael willing, easy prey.

…From start to finish, …[Pashat Balak] is designed to sensitize us to the role that we play in determining our own fate.

Understanding that the moral of the Balak/Bilaam saga, as R’ Goldin expresses, is that “our fate is determined by our own merit or guilt”, and there appear numerous instances throughout Tanach where B’nei Yisrael suffered due to the sins of successive generations, i.e. “what was displeasing in Hashem’s eyes.” (Repeated citations throughout Tanach)

In contemplating our Parshat Pinchas and condemnations from among the B’nei Yisrael regarding Pinchas and his action in response to the Zimri and Kozbi cohabitation, this author deems it crucial to understand the lead-in — the conclusion of Parshat Balak, as expressed in Torah (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 24, posuk 25 and Perek 25, posukim 1-3, 6, as rendered to English in the Artscroll Stone Chumash):

“Then Bilaam rose up and went and returned to his place, and Balak also went on his way.” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 24, posuk 25)

“Israel settled in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav. They [the Moavim] invited the people to the feasts of their deities [MB — my term]; the people ate and prostrated themselves to their [the Moavi] deities [MB — my term]. Israel became attached to the Ba’al-peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared against Israel.” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posukim 1-3)

“Behold, a man of the B’nei Yisrael [Zimri, a Nasi (Prince) of Shevet Shimon] came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of the entire assembly of the B’nei Yisrael; and they were weeping at the entrance of the Ohel Mo’ed [the Tent of Meeting].” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posuk 6)

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

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

“The name of the slain man of Israel, who was slain with the Midianite woman was Zimri 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)

A man of B’nei Yisrael had, with the Midianit 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…

It seems strange that Zimri, the leader of Shevet (tribe of) Shimon, the Shimon who with Levi, acted against Shechem and the Shechemites after Shechem violated their sister Dina, would now act and condone co-habitation with other than B’not Yisrael.

We learn from Midrashim on Parshat 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; cited in the Artscroll Stone Chumash (page 876, commentary on 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…]

While Pinchas’s zealousness was a manifestation of L’Shem Shemayim, Rav Zelig Pliskin, in his Sefer “Growth Through Torah” (page 358) renders our Parshat’s opening posukim and notes:

“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: ‘Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron HaKohen, turned back my wrath from upon the B’nei Yisrael in that he was zealous for My sake among them, so that I did not consume the B’nei Yisrael in My jealousy.'” (Sefer Bamidbar, Perek 25, posukim 10-11)

There are many instances in life in which the correct thing to do is not always the most popular…. But a person whose focus is on doing the will of the Almighty will not be deterred even if others will insult him for his behavior.

R’Rafael Katzenellenbogen is cited in Studies in the Weekly Parsha on Parshat, by Yehuda Nachshoni, referring to R’ Sonnenfeld who noted that Zimri’s distorted sense of “acting for the sake of Shemayim” evolved from;

“…a novel, misleading ideology, that evil must be tolerated by incorporating it into the Camp of Israel, to dissuade the lustful man from finding himself in the camp of idolaters.” (Studies in the Weekly Parsha, by Yehuda Nachshoni, Parsha Balak, page 1115.)

Zimri’s alleged “L’Shem Shemayim” model; bringing co-habitation with Moabite women into the camp of B’nai Yisrael lest men go looking for it outside, i.e., at the Midianite/Moabite Bazaar where the co-habitation was an enticement and seduction to the avodah zora Ba’al Pe’or, seemed a cover for his (Zimri’s) true motivations and intentions. Zimri’s “In your face, Moshe” demeanor appeared as motivated by lust for power, just as Korach’s true motivations were covered by rationale of accusation of nepotism against Moshe Rabbeinu and Aaron.

But perhaps we can’t entirely equate today’s attempts at incorporation of various alien practices into the camp of B’nei Yisrael with Zimri’s alleged “L’Shem Shemayim” model. R’ Katzenellenbogen’s understanding of Zimri’s actions of incorporating toleration of evil within the Camp of Israel, apparently for the sake of Shemayim, might have had some ostensibly outward well-meaning purpose of promoting a sense of unity among varying sectors of the Kehal.

And so, Rav Pliskin then renders our Parshat’s third posuk and cites Rabbi Naftoli Tzvi Berlin (the Netziv) who commented (“Growth Through Torah”, page 359):

“Therefore say: I am giving him My covenant of peace.”

“Pinchas did a zealous act that could cause someone to be aggressive even when it would not be appropriate. Therefore, The Almighty blessed him with a covenant of peace. In all other areas of his life he should be a man of peace.” (Haamek Dovor)

From Torah’s narrative, there is no doubt that Pinchas acted l’Shem Shemayim (for the sake of Hashem) by impaling Zimri and Kozbi and so merited the Kehuna and eternal life. However, there seems to be a point which this author has not previously focused on closely and seems in need of clarity. According to Halacha, as explained by Rabbi Henach Leibowitz in his sefer “Majesty of Man” on our Parshat Pinchas (page 247):

When a Jew sins with a non-Jewish woman in front of at least ten people, the Torah allows an individual to take action — “a zealot may kill him” (Sanhedrin 82a)…. One who is so determined to uphold the honor of Hashem that he cannot let evil exist before him — is permitted to take the law into his own hands.

…Note that Pinchas, who so wanted to carry out the will of Hashem and bring the sinners to justice, did not run in a heated passion to kill Zimri and Kozbi. He first went to inquire of Moshe what the law was and only then did he take action.

R’ Goldin explains, in his sefer, “Unlocking The Torah Text ” on Parshat Pinchas (pages 255-256):

Talmud includes the circumstances facing Pinchas in its list of situations in which Jewish law permits zealots to… summarily execute perpetrators in the very act of their crimes. (Mishna Sanhedrin, Perek 9, posuk 6) This legal allowance for zealotry is even identified as one of the few regulations directly transmitted by Hashem orally to Moshe at Sinai. (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a)

The Rabbis… maintain that this right of zealotry falls into a small, puzzling category of laws described as… “law that one may not teach.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 82a)

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

“He impaled 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.

What the Lubavitcher Rebbe appears to be describing is another legal point which is not discussed by R’ Leibowitz, the concept known under the loshen; Kannoi Pogim Bo — that a zealot witnessing a co-habitation between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman may slay them both only provided that the slaying occurs as they co-habit. (bottom of Sanhedrin 81b through top of 82a)

So, it seems that today, a Pinchas-type zealous action against “…a novel, misleading ideology, that evil must be tolerated by incorporating it into the Camp of Israel,” such as mass bitul Shabbos, inter-marriage, civil marriage, avodah zora (i.e. “Jews for Yushka”), same genderism, anti-Brit Milah, etc. is highly improbable and remote. By the hand of Hashem, the recent elections in Israel which ended in stalemate give the Jews a second chance. B’Ezrat Hashem, that we, the electorate, by our actions, get it right this time. The adage R’ Goldin seems to be teaching is that our fate is tied to our intent and actions, determined by our own merit or guilt.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them and that the twice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes, at government expense; both due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. May our dear brother Jonathan Pollard be liberated and truly free — only upon his return home to Israel, and that the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of five years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to 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 Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — 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.