The Zeal of Pinchas Repairs the Sin Committed in Midian
It is written, “The L-RD spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Priest…. Therefore say: ‘Behold! I give him My covenant of peace’ ” (Numbers 25:10-12). There are several things to understand in these verses.
1. We know that throughout the Torah, when G-d wants to communicate something to the Children of Israel through Moses, He says, “Speak to the Children of Israel,” or “Command the Children of Israel,” and other such expressions. Consequently, here too it should have been stated, “Speak to Pinchas and tell him that I give him….” Why does the verse immediately refer to what Pinchas the son of Elazar did?
2. Why is the letter vav in the word shalom (“peace”) broken (see Kiddushin 66b)?
3. Above all, we must explain why the verse connects Pinchas to Aaron. Rashi says in the name of the Sages that since the tribes scorned Pinchas because he was a descendant of Jethro (who had been an idolater), the verse highlights that he descended from Aaron (Sanhedrin 82b). Now this is very surprising. Pinchas removed the threat of annihilation that weighed heavily upon the Children of Israel because they had strayed after wicked ways (Sanhedrin 93a; 106a), which rendered them liable to death. The Torah explicitly says, “I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance” (Numbers 25:11). As a result, how could they get the idea of scorning the man who had saved them from certain death?
We shall attempt to explain all this. One should realize that the temptation to get involved in forbidden relationships is incredibly powerful, to the point that the Sages regarded it as necessary to surround the prohibition with numerous protective injunctions. For example, in the area of speech the Sages have said, “Do not indulge excessively in conversation with the woman” (Perkei Avoth 1:5), because in this way a person risks harming himself: Excessive talk leads to looking, then to more serious things. As the Sages have said, “The eye sees, the heart desires, and the body commits the act.”
There is an enormous difference between this desire and all others, for with all others a man is limited. Even if he has a great amount of money, the desire for more does not go beyond a certain level; money can’t be eaten, it can only be kept. In reality, there is not much difference between the rich and the poor, other than one having money and the other not, one possessing businesses and homes and the other not; the fact remains that they both have food to eat. It is different with desires connected to forbidden relationships, which are very difficult to conquer. This is, moreover, why the Torah warned us about it so much, and why the Sages established fences that prevent us from even coming close to a woman in niddah or being alone with a woman. It is in order that we avoid the risk of sinning.
What follows is a story that illustrates to what point it is appropriate to impose prohibitions on oneself. One day a certain Jew, who had returned to the Torah and become a G-d fearing Talmid Chacham, came to see me in tears. He had failed to keep himself from being dragged into this grave sin at his office with a non-Jewish woman (who was married to a non-Jew). They had begun by joking around with each other, until they had almost committed this sin. Yet the power of Torah had sustained him; he fled from his office, and now he was crying before me. He asked, “How did I get to this point, since I studied Torah and carefully observed all the mitzvot? How is this possible?”
I replied, “First of all, you don’t have to cry or feel hopeless. The evil inclination wants nothing more than to bring a man to deep despair by telling him, ‘You clearly see that you don’t have the strength to repent of your sins.’ You should therefore take heart and realize that you did a great mitzvah and an act of valor, since far from actually committing the sin, you fled at the last minute, which will be considered as a great merit on your account. Yet all this is on condition that you never place yourself in such a situation, for who knows if you will again manage to be victorious!
“As for the question of knowing how this could happen to you since you study Torah, know that it came as a result of your transgressing the prohibition against being alone with a woman. You were alone with this woman in your office, and following that you began to speak with her of this and that, until finally the situation got to the point that you wouldn’t have been saved without the merit of the Torah.”
This terrible story occurred during the week of Parsha Balak. Concerning this fact, I explained to him that we read this parsha during vacation time, for it is a time when the streets are filled with lewdness, to the point that Balaam’s advice on how to make a Jew sin takes on its full strength once again. Yet G-d created a balance in the world (Ecclesiastes 7:14), and it is precisely during the week of Parsha Balak, during a time when debauchery prevails, that we read of the deed of Pinchas, who demonstrated his zeal for the L-RD of Hosts and thus awakened the power to conquer this particular temptation.
Everything that we have explained allows us to understand why Pinchas is called “son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Priest.” Actually, he prevented an epidemic from breaking out in Israel, and consequently he should have immediately received his reward from G-d. Now if G-d had said, “Speak to Pinchas…”, the reward would have been delayed by a slight instant, which would have been an imperfection. This is why He immediately said, “Pinchas, son of Elazar….” It was to give him his reward immediately, without having to wait an instant. This is also why the letter vav is broken: It teaches us that everything which Pinchas did was perfect, for the word shalom (“peace”) with a broken vav can also be read as shaleim (“perfect”,”complete”). He therefore acted to perfection – without any personal concerns – solely for the honor of G-d, and with the totality of his 248 members and 365 tendons. The upper part of the vav points upwards, for everything was done for the love of Heaven, and the lower part alludes to the resoluteness of Pinchas, who remained as perfect as before, without any sin.
And yet when we examine Pinchas’ action, our surprise and questions increase. First, he apparently did not have the right to act in this way without the permission of the Beit Din. Second, he deliberately put his life at risk. Third, he taught Halachah before his teacher Moses, who did not remember that those who are inflamed with zeal can strike one who has relations with an Aramean (Tanhuma Balak 20). Finally, the offending party could have died by Pinchas’ hand, yet he was a priest and it was forbidden for him to become impure through contact with the dead. He could not have known that a miracle was going to be performed for him at that instant.
To answer these questions, we must say that Pinchas felt that this sin was, so to speak, tormenting G-d. Now a man should at all cost avoid any actions that arouse this type of suffering. For Pinchas, it was urgent to put an end to it, be it by infringing upon the laws of the Torah for G-d’s sake (see Psalms 119:126). It was to the extent that Pinchas did not address himself to any Beit Din, neglected danger, and ignored his teacher Moses and the Sanhedrin. Pinchas only considered the glory of G-d, which was being profaned at that moment. Yet not everyone is able to arrive at such a perfect state of godly fervor. This requires extreme vigilance, for there is a great risk of profaning G-d’s Name, through pride – through a sense of one’s own honor – by wanting to have the same zeal for the glory of G-d as did Pinchas. Yet here, the Holy One, blessed be He, testified concerning Pinchas that all his zeal was for the love of Heaven (“when he zealously avenged Me”), which is why He gave him His covenant of peace.
Since we are mentioning this, I thought to add that Pinchas’ deed was marked by a love of Heaven to the point that even if the spectacle of what Zimri did made Pinchas recall the Halachah (Sanhedrin 82a), it still remains that it is said concerning him: “He stood up amid the assembly” (Numbers 25:7). This means that he still felt himself to be an integral member of the community, not superior to it. He was free of all pride, which is the meaning of “when he zealously avenged Me among them” – not in any way above them.
If Pinchas’ behavior had contained the slightest trace of personal interest, this could have put the community in danger. This is why it is written, “He stood up amid the assembly.” This means that even when he acted, he remained in the midst of the community, without any pride or sense of vanity. This is what brought about a perfect response, pleasing to G-d and true. This idea is also behind the scorn of the Children of Israel: It was difficult for them to imagine that Pinchas could have acted for the love of Heaven. In fact, if that had been permitted, wouldn’t Moses – the head of the people – have done so himself? They therefore concluded that Pinchas wanted to embarrass Moses for not having known the Halachah in such a case, which is why they scorned him, for they couldn’t see into his heart. When a person does something good, everyone regrets not having done the same, and they ask themselves what merit permitted that person to do so. Yet at the same time they mock and scorn him in order to downplay the importance of his deed. This is why the verse highlights that Pinchas descended from Aaron the Priest. It is a way to assert that he only acted for the love of Heaven, as did his grandfather, and that the Jewish people were saved by his merit.