Dvar Torah on Parasha Pinchas
Parasha Pinchas kicks it off with Pinchas receiving his reward for stopping the plague of Peor by killing Zimri and Cozbi. It’s obvious Pinchas was a tough man, and probably not the kind of man you’d be quick to argue with. Now that I think of it, he’s probably not the kind of guy you’d see ordering a frapucino at Starbucks either. He’s especially not the kind of guy who’d get whipped cream.
Pinchas is first mentioned Exodus 6:25 identifying him as the son of Eleazer, and Aaron’s son. He next shows up in parasha Balak and Pinchas, and for the last time in the Torah in Numbers 31:6 when he is sent with 1,000 men of every tribe to fight the Midianites.
We see him again in Joshua 22 where he challenges the Israelites who stayed on the other side of the Jordan, and briefly in Judges 20 where he leads Israel into battle against the tribe of Benjamin.
I really enjoyed the passage in Joshua 22 and I’ll recap it: It’s reported that the Reubenites, Gadites, and half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar. Joshua sends Pinchas to investigate before Israel is sent to war with them. I like this story because I picture being on the receiving end of this stick: Pinchas and his posse shows up knocking at your door one day saying, “What’s going on here?”
Put yourself in the place of the men receiving Pinchas. You’re not only looking eye-to-eye with Israel’s High Priest, but the man who personally and very intimately killed a couple because of his zeal for G~d. You know this man is not going to play around so you’d better answer quick… and it had better be good.
Pinchas explains clearly this situation: It’s something like, “Guys, look. You remember the sin of Peor wherein 24,000 people died, right? Of course you do. You remember that I stopped that plague, right? And you remember how, yes? Yes. And I don’t need to mention the sin of Achan when he stole contraband and it cost the lives of 36 men in what should have been an easy battle. Of course, you know that he was stoned for this sin. Of course you do.
This next bit is not biblical, but I saw Pinchas as being the prototype for the Dirty Harry character. I can hear him now at this ominous meeting: “I know what you’re thinking. Is this the man who stopped the plague of Peor? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as I’m the most powerful priest in Israel at your doorstep and can send Israel’s soldiers to cut your heads clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”
Pinchas’ Commendable Zeal
Overall, Pinchas committed a praiseworthy act, no matter how uncomfortable we are with the violence, G~d gives the proverbial thumbs up. Israel was in the midst of a national tragedy being enticed into sin by the counsel of Balaam to the Midianites giving away our secret: Israel can only be defeated when she is separated from her G~d. The Midianite women were conducting psychological warfare on Israel’s men leading them into sexual immorality and idol worship—outright rebellion to G~d. Pinchas was a hero in G~d’s eye and even earned a mention in Psalm 106:30 & 31 as being righteous for all generations.
As troubling as it is, I think if we look at Pinchas’ action as military in its nature it’s easier to understand. From a military viewpoint, Zimri’s flagrant disobedience contributes to the death of 24,000 Jews, and to his own destruction, and I’m not even talking about what Pinchas did to him. Zimri was grossly insubordinate, consorting with the enemy, and committing treason. Under military rule, he deserved to die. Rashi states that what Pinchas did was not only commendable, but that Pinchas had even done G~d a favor by killing the couple.
The Chatam Sofer praises Pinchas for showing the same zeal and energy to do right that the sinning Israelites displayed in doing wrong. Pinchas was not just doing G~d a favor, but Israel. His action regained G~d’s favor towards Israel and stopped the plague.
Pinchas Problematic Zeal
This zeal, though praised and rewarded by G~d, makes us very uncomfortable. When we think about religious zealotry, our collective consciousness as not only Americans, but especially as ancient and enduring Jews, is not particularly positive because of all the religious zealotry we’ve suffered and survived. So when we confront the story and this text, it seems as though we have this stain in our past, and no matter how ancient it is, we’re not comfortable with the idea that some of our greatest ancestors behaved in such a way. Even more troubling than Pinchas actions is G~d’s approval. How do we reconcile this in a modern context?
I believe there are a couple of ways. First we look at it from an historical context: the world was a different place then. People didn’t work out problems with wrist slapping sanctions and diplomacy. We fought. We killed. We eliminated the obstacles in our path.
Second, and more permanently, we know that the overarching rule of Judaism is to pursue a path of peace with all people. In Dt 20:10, Israel, when preparing for war, is commanded to offer the enemy terms of peace. Isaiah speaks of a worldwide peace where all the nations will beat their swords into plowshares. Even our eschatology towards non-Jews is peaceful. We believe there’s room for everyone to peacefully coexist. How cool is that? The primary perspective the Tanach gives us of G~d is one of patience, love, and even more patience. Any anger displayed by G~d, or approved of by G~d must have only come about after Him trying for a long time to get us to change our minds.
Balancing Justice & Peace
Those two things said, ultimately, I believe it’s about balance. The Etz Hayim commentary makes the observation that Pinchas position as High Priest serves as a balance to Joshua‚ which seems fitting as Joshua is just a little more laid back and patient than Moses was. On that note, Moses’ quick temper was offset by Aaron’s peaceful nature. You then have the political and religious leaders of Israel complimenting one another and giving a balanced rule. So we can see that balance is very important.
Speaking of Aaron let’s look at him as the other side of this story’s coin. Aaron is a model of peace for all Jews. Hillel, in Pirkei Avot, tells us to “be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them to the Torah.” Here’s Aaron, this model and example of peace, the High Priest of Israel, who ultimately was not balanced. As Pinchas can be considered overzealous, Aaron can be thought of as overpeaceful.
I say this because Aaron had a moment which I believe to be similar to Pinchas’ at the base of Sinai with the incident of the Golden Calf. When pressed, Aaron gave in to the demands of the people. Like Pinchas did, Aaron could have stopped the sin and idolatry, not being the vessel that ended a judgment like Pinchas did, but altogether preventing it from happening, which is even better. Aaron probably wouldn’t have even had to kill anyone. But Aaron’s peaceful nature was so strong that he disliked any kind of conflict. At the critical moment his desire to keep peace with men had surpassed his duty to keep men at peace with G~d.
To conclude, what is it that we need to balance? Peace against violence? No. I believe that as Jews we only pursue peace. We pursue peace with men as Aaron did. We pursue peace with G~d as Pinchas. They work together. They cooperate. We cannot be successful at one mission when it requires the loss of the other. To close with the words of Psalm 85:11, Lovingkindness and truth meet. Righteousness and peace kiss.