1997Biblical Text 1: "Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites were checked. Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand."
Bamidbar 25:6-10 picks up the story:
The Lord Spoke to Moses, saying, Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying his zealousness for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my zealousness. Say, therefore, I grant him my covenant of Shalom. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expatiation for the Israelites.
Observations On Biblical Text 1: The Torah's description of Pinchas' action, of Moses's inaction, and of God's reaction raises some disturbing questions. Among them:
1. Does the Torah condone zealousness? Is even murder permitted when performed in the service of one's personal sense of God's will? Are there no limits to what the Torah believes can be done in the name of God?
2. Does Moses' silence and God's 'Covenant of Shalom' with Pinchas imply that zealousness and murder have no consequences? Is Pinchas the model for Jews through the ages to emulate?
These questions stem not only from the sensibilities of the late 20th century liberal. In truth, the story of Pinchas has evoked ambivalent feelings among Jewish sages throughout the ages, as the following texts attest:
Rabbinic Text 1: Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7
The Elders of Israel sought to excommunicate Pinchas until the Holy Spirit hurried and said: "It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expatiation for the Israelites. '
[Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah explains: "Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinchas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine."]
Observation On Text 1: The Rabbis of the Talmud Yerushalmi (as explained by Rabbi Epstein) understand Pinchas' act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of God. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinchas' requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. God's intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinchas as a uniquely righteous individual (can there be another who meets the commentary's standard for selflessness?) and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when God no longer speaks.
Rabbinic Text 2: Midrash Shemos Rabbah 33:5
Pinchas expounded, "A horse who goes to war risks his life for his master. How much more so should I risk my life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He!" He began to ponder: "What shall I do? Alone I cannot prevail. Two can overpower one; can one overpower two?" While he was pondering, the epidemic raged among the Israelites.
Observation On Text 2: Like the first text, the Midrash Shemos Rabbah also assumes Pinchas' righteousness. To do so, it denies zeal for God as an motive for his actions and sees only that he needed to act in order to end God's plague. Only God may act zealously on his own behalf. Pinchas' action was to save Israelite lives by appeasing God's wrath, and in that regard he is criticized for acting too slowly.
Rabbinic Text 3: Talmud Bavli, Tractate Zevachim 101b:
Pinchas did not become a priest until he had made peace among the Tribes [i.e. between the Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasheh, and the rest of Israel.
Observation On Text 3: The Talmud Bavli is less certain of Pinchas then are texts 1 and 2. Were his actions warranted? Perhaps. But their results are those of "Ei-Shalom" (lack of Shalom) and their reward claimable only after Pinchas has compensated for the loss of Shalom which they wrought.
The theme set by the Bavli, that there is a price to be paid for acts of zealousness and that Shalom is the higher goal, is reflected by medieval and modern sources. As the following texts indicate, inner harmony and communal peace are perceived as both the ultimate objective and the highest blessing:
Rabbinic Text 4: Commentary Of The Netziv (Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin):
In reward for turning away the wrath of the Holy One Blessed Be He, God blessed Pinchas with the attribute of Shalom, that he should not be quick tempered or angry. Since, as it was only natural that such a deed as Pinchas should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised inner peace and tranquillity.
Observation On Text 4: The Netziv focuses on the self destructive nature of zealous voilence. It as if the Netziv is warning that such acts can only lead one away from the path of Godliness, i.e. the path of Shalom. Perhaps informed by the Midrash Shemos Rabbah, the Netziv assumes that Pinchas may be justified only through an understanding that he acted to protect the Israelites (from Gods wrath). An act of zealous violence on behalf of God would not be justifiable.
Rabbinic Text 5: Rav By Nathan (as quoted in "Iturei Torah"):
After the great zealousness which he acted upon for God, God gives him as a gift the Covenant of Shalom. It is as if the Torah is hinting that the path of Shalom is always preferable to, and more successful than, the path of zealousness and war.
Observation On Text 5: Amen.
[Note: All of the texts referred to above are available in English translation and accessible to the casual student. Two compendiums which are especially helpful in finding primary sources for a Torah Study such as this are Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg and The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities by Yishai Chasidah.]
Prepared by Rabbi Howard Alpert, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia