Torah Portion of the Week— Pinchas
This week’s portion Pinchas, opens with God praising Pinchas, the son of Elazar, for turning back His wrath upon the Children of Israel, when Pinchas was zealous for God’s sake, and brought atonement for the sin of the people. God therefore declares that as a reward for Pinchas’ actions, He will give Pinchas His Covenant of Peace, and that Pinchas and his offspring after him shall be part of the Covenant of the Eternal Priesthood.
The actual details of the story of Pinchas are recorded in Numbers 25, the last chapter of last week’s parasha, parashat Balak. The people of Israel had settled in Shittim, where they began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. When God’s wrath flared up against Israel, God demanded of Moses that all the leaders of the people who had taken part in this horrible idolatrous act, be put to death.
Moses had just instructed the judges of Israel to punish those who had sinned with the idolatrous Ba’al Peor, when suddenly a prominent Israelite man came forth and, together with a Midianite woman, began to commit an act of public harlotry. It was then that Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the High Priest, stood up amidst the assembly, took a spear in his hand, followed the Israelite man and the woman into the tent and pierced them both. With their deaths, the plague halted, but not before 24,000 Israelites had already perished.
The Torah identifies the two perpetrators as prominent individuals. The man was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of the tribe of Simeon. The woman was Kozbi the daughter of Tzur, a Midianite princess. While Pinchas’ act of vengeance is hailed by God, the commentators are quite troubled by Pinchas’ impulsive and zealous action. After all, by what right does Pinchas decide to preempt Moses’ authority, and take the lives of the perpetrators, especially in front of Moses who had himself witnessed the harlotry?
While the rabbis of the Talmud and many of the biblical commentaries see Pinchas’ deed as heroic and bold from both the Jewish legal and a practical standpoint, they nevertheless are troubled by his action. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, in fact, confirms Pinchas’ action as being legally correct, but declares that the law is not practiced and not taught. In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 9:7, states that the Sages wished to ex-communicate Pinchas for his act. Furthermore, had Zimri, the perpetrator, turned on Pinchas and killed Pinchas in self-defense, Zimri would not have been subject to punishment.
The rabbis wonder why the Torah goes to such great lengths to publicize the names of the perpetrators, calling Zimri אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמֻּכֶּה, the Israelite man who was smitten (Numbers 25:14). Some commentators assume that it comes to underscore that since Zimri was a tribal prince, there was a great risk that his fellow tribesmen would rise up to avenge his death. Nevertheless, Pinchas did not hesitate to stop the sinful act and fulfill the call of his conscience.
The Kotzker Rebbe declares that while Pinchas’ act of vengeance was celebrated and his virtues praised, he was nevertheless invalidated from becoming the leader of the Jewish people. Moses had originally thought that Pinchas would have been a suitable replacement, but when he saw Pinchas’ zealotry, he realized, that as a leader, Pinchas could not conduct himself with moderation and flexibility. Therefore, he appointed Joshua as his successor.
The commentators also wrestle with the well-known principle that a Kohen who kills, even when permissible by Torah law, is rendered invalid to serve as a priest. How then could Pinchas become a Kohen? This further underscores the great commitment of Pinchas, who nevertheless proceeded to act even though the action could jeopardize his becoming a priest. Some suggest that an exception was made for Pinchas, and that is why his status was not invalidated.
More likely is that since Pinchas was born before Aaron and his sons were made priests, Pinchas was regarded simply as a Levite. Having the status of a Levite when he killed Zimri and Kozbi, Pinchas was not subject to being invalidated. It was only after God’s blessing, that Pinchas became a priest. Shabbat Shalom