Pinchas’ Jealousy: Rectifying the Sin of Midian
The first verse of Parsha Pinchas presents a certain number of difficulties:
1. We know that when G-d wants to transmit something to the Children of Israel through Moses, He uses the formula, “Speak to the Children of Israel” (e.g. Exodus 35:1) or “Command the Children of Israel” (e.g. Leviticus 24:2). Here too He should have said: “Speak to Pinchas and say to him: I give to him My covenant of peace.” Instead, why does the Torah immediately tell us what happened to Pinchas (see Numbers 25:10-12)?
2. Why is the letter vav in the word shalom (Numbers 25:12) cut in two (see Kiddushin 66b)?
3. Why does the passage in question trace Pinchas’ lineage back to Aaron? Although we have seen Rashi’s answer to this, the question still remains. As we know, Pinchas annulled the strict sentence pronounced against the Children of Israel following their sin with the daughters of Midian. Since the Holy One, blessed be He, abhors immorality (Sanhedrin 93a, 106a), this transgression rendered them liable to annihilation, as it is written: “I did not consume the Children of Israel in My jealousy” (Numbers 25:11). Hence is it possible to think that the Children of Israel humiliated the very person who saved them from certain death?
The explanation lies in the fact that the sexual impulse in man is extremely powerful and very difficult to control. Our Sages have warned us to not indulge in excessive conversation with our own wives (Perkei Avoth 1:5), for such conversations lead to excessive staring. Now as we know, the eye sees, the heart desires, and sin is carried out.
In the case of other sins, a man is limited. For example, if a person has many possessions, he cannot use them all; at the most, he can only jealously protect them. What difference is there between the wealthy and the poor? The wealthy owns land, businesses, homes, and so on, while the poor is destitute of these things, yet both have enough to eat. The same cannot be said with respect to sexuality. It is very difficult to control this impulse, which is why our Sages have categorically prohibited men from having any physical contact with a woman during her period, and they also prohibited a man from being alone with a woman (Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 22:1), lest he succumb to sin.
In Midian, the Children of Israel looked at the idol of Peor that the daughters of Midian showed them and relieved themselves before it (Sifri 25:1). Can we even conceive of such a vile sin? Let us distance ourselves from such a detestable thing. Let us make ourselves barriers to completely avoid such things. One of my friends, a very religious man who had recently started to engage in Torah study and mitzvah performance, once came to me in tears and explained that he had succumbed to sinning with a non-Jewish woman who worked in his office. It all began with an innocent, lighthearted conversation. Nevertheless, the Torah had saved him, and like a lightening bolt he rushed away from his office. “How did I get to this point?” he asked me in tears. “You know me: I study Torah diligently and I scrupulously observe all the mitzvot!”
“First of all,” I told him, “there’s no use crying and losing hope over this. That’s exactly what the evil inclination wants: To make you believe that the sin you committed is so serious that there’s no way for you to repent.” I then advised my friend to strengthen himself and explained that he actually performed a great mitzvah by not succumbing literally to this sin, for he avoided it at the last minute. “You have great merit,” I said to him. “But only if you don’t put yourself in such a situation once more. Who knows if you’ll be able to control your evil inclination again? Although you definitely study Torah, you should realize that you transgressed a single mitzvah: You should not have stayed alone with that non-Jewish woman in your office for a single instant. Without your Torah, you would have been lost.”
This incident occurred during the week of Parsha Balak. I explained to my friend that this parsha normally occurs during the summer vacations, when perversions fill our streets. The tainted advice of Bilaam can then take on extra weight and attempt to deceive everyone. However, as the wisest of men said, “G-d has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14), and it is precisely at the end of this parsha that Pinchas’ deed occurs. Pinchas demonstrated his jealousy on G-d’s behalf and showed us that we can control the evil inclination.
So why is this sin so serious?
1. In his book Likutei Torah, the Arizal teaches that Adam’s primary sin was that he did not wait until Shabbat to have relations with his wife. The kelipah of the serpent, meaning the evil inclination, then attached itself to them and they both sinned. This is why the evil inclination is more powerful in this area than in any other.
2. Since Creation is devoid of any meaning without man, and since the world only survives through the mitzvah of being fruitful and multiplying (the first of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot), it is here that the evil inclination is particularly entrenched. The person who transgresses this mitzvah is therefore at risk of transgressing all G-d’s mitzvot.
Living in the Garden of Eden, Adam enjoyed a heavenly abundance of things. The angels served him roasted meat (Sanhedrin 59b), so when he ended up eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it was mainly because he did not fulfill the aforementioned mitzvah on Friday night. As a result, the serpent attacked him. Although we know the unfortunate consequences for Adam and all humanity, we should nevertheless realize that the reward is proportional to the effort we put into controlling the serpent, the evil inclination (Sotah 11a).
Pinchas, thanks to whom the plague was stopped, therefore had a right to an immediate reward. Now if the Holy One, blessed be He, had said: “Speak to Pinchas and say to him: I give to him My covenant of peace,” his reward would have been delayed for a short time. This is why the verse immediately states, “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest” (Numbers 25:11). As for the letter vav in the word shalom (v.12), it is broken in two in order to show us that Pinchas attained shaleim, completeness and perfection in everything he did. As we have seen, Pinchas exclusively sought G-d’s glory and acted with incomparable devotion by utilizing the 365 sinews and 248 limbs of his body. The top part of the vav alludes to the heavenly domain, for he carried out his deed solely for the sake of Heaven, whereas the lower part alludes to Pinchas’ resoluteness, for he retained his original completeness by being free of all sin.
All the same, Pinchas’ action invites us to ask a certain number of questions:
1. Did Pinchas not need to consult the Beit Din before taking action?
2. Why and how could Pinchas have deliberately put his life at risk?
3. How could Pinchas have dared to teach Halachah before his teacher Moses, the Halachah being that the zealous can kill anyone who cohabits with a non-Jew (Sanhedrin 82a, Tanhuma Balak 20)?
4. Since Pinchas was a priest, had he touched the corpse of Zimri the son of Salu or Cozbi the daughter of Tzur, he would have become unclean. Since he certainly could not have known that a miracle was going to be performed for him, how could he run the risk of touching them by the action that he took?
The explanation lies in the fact that Pinchas sensed G-d’s great sorrow as a result of this transgression. Pinchas knew that a man’s goal in this world should only be to raise the Shechinah from the dust of the earth. He therefore had to act as quickly as possible, embodying the concept of “It is time to act for the L-RD; they have voided Your Torah” (Psalms 119:126).
Thus Pinchas did not consult any Beit Din, he ignored all possible danger, and he took into account neither his teacher Moses’ authority nor that of the Sanhedrin. He cared only about the Glory of G-d, which he saw was being soiled before his very eyes. All the same, we must understand that not everyone can reach such a high level, one in which he can demonstrate his jealousy for the L-rd of Hosts. We must be extremely prudent in our actions, otherwise we risk achieving the very opposite of what we want, namely a desecration of G-d’s Name. This is what happens when we seek out honor for ourselves and reveal our pride.
Such was not at all the case with Pinchas, who arose from the midst of the congregation. He did not feel superior to his brothers, and we see no sign of pride in what he did. He demonstrated his jealousy for G-d’s sake “in the midst of” (not over) the Children of Israel. This concept can be illustrated by the case of a poor Jewish community in which a request has gone out to contribute to the liberation of a certain number of prisoners, taken captive only because they were Jewish. Each member of the community must of course do what he can. However if one of them were to suddenly announce, “I will contribute a million dollars,” he would be applauded to no end for such a noble deed. Imagine for a moment the feelings of such a generous person, one who contributes to saving so many Jewish lives. Similarly, Pinchas saw the community of Israel in tears, the pitiful masses who were incapable of stopping the plague that descended upon them. They asked questions of one another, but answers were not forthcoming because everyone had forgotten the Halachah. Pinchas then remembered the Halachah governing such a case and immediately arose to save the entire community.
If Pinchas’ action had not been performed solely with the intention of glorifying G-d’s Name, he would have put the whole community at risk, as we saw above. However the tribes began to humiliate Pinchas for what he did, for according to them he had not acted in G-d’s Name, and it was Moses – the leader of the Jewish people – who was responsible for doing so. The tribes felt that Pinchas had killed Zimri and Cozbi only to shame Moses, who had forgotten the Halachah concerning what to do in such a case. It was similar to someone performing a good deed, and all those who knew him thought, “Too bad I didn’t do this. Who does he think he is, acting in this way?” Thus the tribes began to mock Pinchas in order to lessen his merit. In fact, what they lacked was gratitude.
By tracing Pinchas’ lineage back to Aaron the priest, the verse wants everyone to understand that Pinchas followed the path marked by his grandfather Aaron, who loved peace and continuously sought it, and that it was because of him that the Jewish people were saved from annihilation.
The Zohar notes that after each severe punishment pronounced against the Children of Israel, Moses beseeched Hashem to forgive their sins and annul their punishment (Zohar III:198). Moses even asked G-d to wipe his name out of His book after the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 32:32). However here, with the incident involving Zimri, Moses forgot the Halachah and refrained from taking action. All this occurred so that Pinchas could come and assume the responsibility for such a noble deed.
Moses bitterly regretted this, for G-d’s Name was likely to be desecrated. G-d also gave Pinchas the strength to act without taking into consideration the thousands of soldiers that surrounded Zimri, a tribal leader, and without fearing the numerous dangers that faced him, as well as the problem of teaching Halachah in the presence of one’s teacher. Pinchas acted in this way so that Moses would not suffer, and this is what earned Pinchas the priesthood. As we have seen, it was only after he killed Zimri the son of Salu that Pinchas merited to become a priest (Zevachim 101b).
The text states, “The L-RD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Harass the Midianites and smite them, for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, daughter of a leader of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague, in the matter of Peor’ ” (Numbers 25:17-18).
Why did Hashem command Moses to exercise the vengeance of the Children of Israel upon the Midianites, after which Moses would die (Numbers 31:2)? How could this be, since G-d had not commanded him to wage war against Amalek before his death? It is because of Amalek that G-d’s Name and His Throne are not complete, and they will only be complete when Amalek’s progeny is wiped out (Tanhuma Ki Teitzei 9). As we know, this situation can be corrected, for through Torah study we can wipe out the memory of Amalek and rectify the Name Y–h. In addition, the Children of Israel were not excessively responsible for Amalek’s attack, for it occurred before the Torah had been given. Amalek attacked the Children of Israel because they had neglected a limited number of commandments that G-d had given them up to that point (Sanhedrin 106a). As a result, if they had received the Torah and not engaged in its study, the results would have been infinitely worse.
The war against Midian is, on the other hand, substantially more serious than that of Amalek. Let us keep in mind that the Midianites made the Children of Israel sin at Shitim, which occurred after the Torah was given and an entire generation had perished in the desert after doing evil in G-d’s eyes. The episode with Midian involved a new generation of righteous men who were destined to enter the Holy Land. If it had not been for Pinchas, who stood firm like a rock and killed the tribal leader of Shimon, the Children of Israel would have been wiped out. It was also Pinchas who conquered Midian because of the Ark and Headplate. It was difficult for Moses to not do anything to help Israel, therefore Hashem commanded him to exercise the vengeance of the Children of Israel on the Midianites, thus easing his pain and granting him peace for having helped them.
The timing of Moses’ death depended on one thing only: The war against Midian. Moses could have delayed its start in order to live longer, yet he did not delay it in the least (Sifri 25:34), and in this we see his greatness. He only sought to glorify Hashem and cared solely for the welfare of the Children of Israel. This was not a private war for Moses, the proof being that after he was given the command to go to war against the Midianites, he ordered others to prepare for combat (Numbers 31:3) so as to exercise Hashem’s vengeance against Midian.
Moses also knew that if someone causes others to sin, or makes them hate the Children of Israel, he is classified as an enemy of G-d. All those who hate Israel also hate the One Who created the world by His word (Sifre 10:35). Moses could not do anything in the episode involving Zimri, for the latter was an enemy of G-d. Vengeance therefore had to be taken against him. It was only after the Children of Israel had repented that vengeance – G-d’s vengeance, not Israel’s – was taken. As a result, if it was not up to Moses to carry out this vengeance, he did not have to delay it. In the end it was Pinchas who managed to rectify things and increase Hashem’s glory.