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עשה תורתך קבע – אמור מעט ועשה הרבה

What Shall We Make of Pinchas?

Posted by rabbiart on July 10, 2009

Our Parshah begins with HaShem declaring.

פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי.
לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם

Pinchas ben Elazar, ben Aharon the priest, diverted My jealous anger away from the Israelites when I was violently furious with them in my jealous anger, so that I didn’t consume Israel with my jealous anger.” Therefore I grant him my covenant of shalom.

Devotees of Law and Order (competing with ER for the all-time “TV series that is dead and won’t die” award), CSI and the like might be the quickest to ask about Pinchas’s state of mind at the time of the killing.  Did he think about right and wrong? Was he seized by an irresistible impulse (See Anatomy of a Murder).  Or did Pinchas save even more from dieing than the 24,000 reported killed.  Was he therefore acting for the greater good?

HaShem’s response appears to be a reward for his  zeal in skewering Zimri ben Salu and Cozbi ben Zur at the end of last Shabbat’s parshah.  He later leads an army against Midian which kills the kings of Midian and captures all the women, children, flocks and goods.  Oh… and burned the cities and encampments with fire.

Pinchas does not exactly come across as “a man of peace”, which is of course the “usual” definition of shalom.  Except perhaps in comparison to Moshe, who when he realizes that the women and children are still alive, commands that they all be killed, except for young women who have not known men (since this is the Bible, he of course means) in the Biblical sense.

According to Nehama Leibowitz, even the rabbis of the Yerushalmi agreed that Pinchas’s act was unsanctioned and in defiance of all the legal strictures and procedures stated in the Torah.

How should we interpret Pinchas’s behavior and the response that HaShem provides?  We should start with the recognition that our generation is not the first to be bothered by this story and to wrestle with it.

One response is to find a way to “be OK” with Pinchas.  The midrash has it that the leaders of the generation reacted by moving to excommunicate Pinchas. HaShem’s grant of an everlasting priesthood to Pinchas and his descendents is a response to this. The KBH vouches for Pinchas, judging that his motivations were pure; that he was acting only to advance k’vod hashem, the glory and honor of HaShem.

Does this intepretation make us feel better? or worse?

Another response is to make the exchange about Pinchas’s spiritual state. Having murdered – justifiably or not – two people, he is agitated and in a state of emotional turmoil.  So the with the brit shalom HaShem is quieting Pinchas’s soul and his emotional state.  Indirectly, this may also make Pinchas more suitable to act as a priest, which requires very careful control of one’s actions in order to correctly follow the rites and rituals of the sacrificial service.

Rabbi Zvi Miller in Monday’s Salant Center eMussar mailing considers the Pinchas incident along with the transition of power between Moshe and Joshua.  Moshe tells Joshua hazak v’amatz in Parshat Va’Yelech. Moshe encourages Joshua in his new role, even though Joshua was his greatest student.  Pinchas, says Rabbi Miller, “encouraged himself” to be courageous and stand up to the immoral activity of Salu and Cozbi.  He calls what Pinchas did a “little bit of pulling himself together”, and finishes by saying “his heroism saved the entire Nation of Israel.”! (exclamation point by the author)

The Gemara (Bavli – Masechet Sotah 45A) makes a further effort of heaping praise on Pinchas. Referring to the war against Midian in BaMidbar 31. It states that Pinchas went to battle to exact judgement on the Midianites for having sold Joseph into slavery.

Pinchas’s grandfather is Putiel, a name elsewhere associated with Joseph. (Biblical characters often have multiple names.)  There are two possible plays-on-words with Putiel. One is derogatory and associates the name Putiel with Jethro, who “fattened his calves for idolatry”. The word for fatten is pitteepitpe -close enough for Midrashic wordplay.  Since Jethro fattened his calves, he can be called Putiel, hence the other tribes could criticize Pinchas for his actions, and call him a son of an idolater.  The alternate reaction is to associate Pinchas with Joseph, who mastered (petpei) his passioned.  Therefore Pinchas has not only a distinguished lineage, but was in full control of his emotions when he slew Zimri and Cozbi.

An argument over  the merits of Pinchas serves well as a proxy for discussions about Israel today.  As in Pinchas’s time, Israel is under threat in our day.  As at Shittim, there are both external and internal threats and causes for concern.

In some way we are supposed to be like Pinchas, and do something like turning away the wrath of HaShem. We are called by this Parshah to find our own way of acting with zeal on behalf of G-d and Israel.  Like Pinchas, we are given no direct instructions on what to do and how to do it.

May we act to protect and strengthen Israel in a way that brings us also HaShem’s covenant of shalom.


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