Posted by: Subway Conductor | July 10, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Pinchas


This Torah portion presents us with a difficult issue. The beginning of the portion tells how “Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest” was rewarded. G-d tells Moses to give him “My covenant of Peace.” Somehow this has always struck me to be the equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. Why did Pinchas deserve this honor? G-d says, “He turned away My wrath from the Israelites when he zealously acted for my zeal in their midst…” The Hebrew word for “zealously” might even be translated “fanatically.”  To find out what Pinchas actually did, we need to look back at last week’s Torah portion. At the end of parashat Balak, Pinchas kills two people who were engaged in an immoral act in public. This raises the question; is G-d rewarding an act of fanaticism? Pinchas is certainly acting outside of the judicial system. His action appears to be a kind of vigilantism. Not exactly the kind of behavior we would expect the Torah to endorse. So, what is going on here?

The first thing I would note is that the Torah divides this story in two. The first part is at the end of last week’s portion and the second half is at the beginning of this week’s. This does seem to require an explanation. It is true that there are narratives in the Torah that are told over the course of two or more weekly Torah portions. The ten plagues are related in two consecutive portions. The story of Joseph takes up several weeks of Torah readings. However, those are both long narratives. The weekly Torah portions that are read in the synagogue service have to be of a reasonable length for a public reading. So, a very long narrative needs to be divided up. But, the story of Pinchas is not that long. It could easily have been contained within a single portion. Therefore, the separation of the two halves of the story does call out for an explanation.

At the end of last week’s portion, Balak, it is related that the Moabite women enticed the Israelites into worshipping Baal Peor – their deity. G-d brought a plague against the people as a result of this apostacy which killed twenty-four thousand Israelites. In the middle of this, the Torah tells us that an Israelite man brought a Midianite woman into the camp and had relations with her right in the sight of Moses and the community and in front of the Tent of Meeting. It is then that Pinchas gets up with his spear and kills the two of them with one thrust in their belly. Then the plague stops.

How are we to understand this seeming act of fanaticism? The key to seeing the true meaning of this story is first to understand that it is not a story about two individuals engaged in a bit of licentious behavior. It is part of a much more serious movement that threatened monotheism and the integrity of the Jewish People. The fact that they performed this act in public, “in the sight of Moses,” and in front of the Tent of Meeting clues us in that this was a political act, part of a larger agenda. There was among the people of Israel a group that wanted to merge with the surrounding peoples – the Midianites and the Moabites – and to create a syncretistic religion combining the worship of Baal Peor with the religion of Israel. We see evidence of this movement in the description of the Moabite women enticing the Israelites to worship Baal Peor which involved a sizable portion of the Israelites. Remember twenty-four thousand were killed in the plague. Also, the two individuals involved in the incident with Pinchas are anonymous at first, but at the end of the episode we are told that the Israelite man was Zimri, chieftain of a Simeonite clan, and the Midianite woman was Cozbi, daughter of a chieftain of the Midianites. So, they were not ordinary people, but members of the leadership of their respective tribes. Note that Zimri was from the tribe of Simeon. There is evidence that the tribe of Simeon was at the heart of this movement to merge the Israelites with the surrounding peoples and to create a syncretistic religion. The evidence for this is in the account of the census taking that is a central theme of the Book of Numbers. In chapter one of Numbers, there is a census which showed that the tribe of Simeon numbered 59,000 men. In our portion, there is another census taken which tallies the tribe of Simeon as 22,000. The tribe of Simeon has been reduced in number by 60%. It seems that most of the Israelites who died in the plague following the apostacy of Baal Peor were members of the tribe of Simeon. And as we have seen Zimri was a leader of a clan in the tribe of Simeon.

I think that all of this context allows us to see that this episode is not a story of Pinchas being offended by the public immorality of two people trying to have a “good time.” He was acting in response to a threat to the very existence of the Jewish People and its unique monotheistic religion. Hence, it is fitting that he was rewarded for his   zealous action.

On the other hand, the Torah is reluctant to be seen as endorsing this kind of fanatic behavior. It does not want to hold up Pinchas as a model that should be imitated by others.  I think this is why the story is divided into two parts. The action is related in last week’s portion and the reward is given in this week’s. This creates a separation between the action and the reward. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we need to be reminded of what Pinchas did to deserve the reward that we read about a week ago. This separation lessens the impact of the story by creating a bit of a disconnect between the reward and the “zealous” action. If we view this episode in the larger context that it was part of, we can understand why Pinchas acted as he did and why he was rewarded. But, the Torah wants to downplay, at least a little, its praise.

Good Shabbos

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