By Shlomo Riskin
At the end of last week’s portion, we read that a prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly cohabited with a Midianite princess in front of Moses and the weeping assemblage of Israel standing in front of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinhas saw this brazen act, he seized a spear and pierced the fornicating man and woman to death in the very place of their transgression (Numbers 25:6-8). This was the spontaneous act of a zealous man. Pinhas saw himself as the sole protector of the Faith; meting out punishment without resorting to the legal avenues of due process, and leaving the testimony of the entire congregation to emerge in a subsequent trial.
Is it not strange that Pinhas receives the Divine gift of a covenant of peace together with the covenant of eternal kehunah (priesthood)? Aren’t zealotry and the pursuit of peace two very different values? To understand why God’s gift of peace is bestowed upon Pinhas the zealot, we need to turn to the Book of Judges.
Many years have passed, the Bible (Joshua 22) records that under Joshua’s leadership the major conquest of the land has been accomplished, paving the way for the Reubenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Menasheh to return to inhabit the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan River. These tribes arrive in their lands and immediately erect an altar near the Jordan, “…a large altar, for everyone to see” (Joshua 22:10. The other tribes of Israel are incensed; they see the erection of a large altar in trans-Jordan – far from the central sanctuary in Shiloh – as an act of rebellion against the God of Israel. “And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered at Shiloh to rise up in battle” (Joshua 22:12).
They dispatch Pinhas the son of Elazar the Kohen, together with ten heads of tribes, to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Pinhas’ delegation reminds them of the disastrous plague that descended upon the entire nation when they first begun to worship the Peor idol and to cohabit with Moabite and Midianite women. This is clearly a reference to the idolatry that led to Pinhas’ act of zealotry (Numbers 12:10-18). Pinhas explains that the building of their altar separate from the central altar in Shiloh will cause repercussions, a hint that the remaining ten tribes would be forced to take action against them.
The underlying motif of Pinhas’ argument is the importance of remaining one nation – each responsible for the actions of the other – despite the distances that separate them. In the interest of unity, he tells these tribes that if they feel “defiled or contaminated” by their distance from the sanctuary, the other ten tribes are willing to take them back to the western side of the Jordan, even though it would mean giving up some of their own land in the redistribution of territory which would have to take place (ibid 19).
The response of two and one half tribes magnifies the theme of unity: this was not an act of rebellion and it was never their intention to replace the Sanctuary in Shiloh with their altar. They only intended their altar to serve as a symbol of the unity of faith and nationality between the tribes on both sides of the Jordan River. Their sacrifices would be offered exclusively in the Shiloh Sanctuary.
Pinhas demonstrates that he is a successful mediator and peace maker, revealing the essence of his personality as a true Kohen and lover of peace who, when younger, had been forced by extreme circumstances to act out of character and behave as a zealot.
With this in mind, let us review the events in the Book of Numbers: the Israelites have begun to commit harlotry with the Moabite women, justifying their immorality by attaching themselves to the hedonistic, idolatrous philosophy of Ba’al Pe’or: “it’s good if it feels good, whatever is natural is positive.” God then instructs Moses, and Moses instructs the judges to execute all the leaders of this idolatrous wave.
But at that very moment, a prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly fornicates with a Midianite woman – daring Moses, whose own wife was a Midianite – to enforce a punishment against him! Moses is momentarily paralyzed, unable to act or even to speak. The entire nation is aghast at the flagrant rebellion; the elders are weeping at the Tent of Meeting. Pinhas, usually a respected and peaceful mediator, understands that if he does not act at once, Moses and his Divine laws will have been silenced and Jewish history will end almost before it begins. This forces Pinhas to act out of character for the ultimate good – and peace – of Israel.
But perhaps there is an alternative perspective – perhaps Pinhas was always a zealot, but because, in a moment of truth, he acted in a way that saved the nation, God granted him the gift of peace which is truly the goal of Israel and the covenant of compassion.
Whatever the true character of Pinhas was, one message is clear. Even if an exceptional, momentary act of zealotry is necessary in extreme circumstances, fanaticism must neither be our national norm, nor our national goal. Our norm and our goal must always be in line with God’s covenant of peace!
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.