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Q & A: Pinchas Not Always Zealous? (Part I)


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QUESTION: Recently, as I was studying the weekly portions of the Torah, I noticed a seeming anomaly. In Parashat Balak, Pinchas does what Moses did not do and zealously killed Zimri, a tribal prince who had sinned. We find in the following portion, Parashat Pinchas, that Pinchas was rewarded for this act. Yet after that, in Parashat Mattot, Pinchas is rebuked for not fulfilling Moses’ command. Can you reconcile this apparent contradiction in the way Pinchas is described?
M. Goldblum
via e-mail
ANSWER: You are very perceptive; it seems at first glance that Pinchas’ behavior in these two events was not consistent. There is also a further problem regarding the events in Parashat Balak; Pinchas issued a ruling in the presence of his teacher, Moses, according to what the Sages explain.For clarification, let us first review the pertinent text in Balak and in Mattot.

In Parashat Balak (Numbers 25:1-9) the Torah relates the following tragic episode: “Israel settled in the Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab, who invited the people to the feasts of their gods; the people ate and prostrated themselves to those gods. Israel became attached to Baal-peor, and the wrath of Hashem flared up against Israel. Hashem said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of the people. Hang them up before Hashem against the sun, so that the flaring wrath of Hashem will withdraw from Israel.’ Moses said to the judges of Israel, ‘Let each man kill his men who were attached to Baal-peor.’ And behold, a man of the Children of Israel came and brought to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, and they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach, and the plague was halted from the Children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were 24,000.”

We see that Pinchas, through his swift action, prevented the spread of a plague that might have
completely devastated the young Jewish nation. For this he is praised by Hashem and awarded an everlasting priesthood, for him and his progeny, as the Torah states immediately afterward in Parashat Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-13): “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, turned back My wrath from the Children of Israel when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, say: Behold, I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his G-d, and he atoned for the Children of Israel.’”

Pinchas, through a quirk of fate, had not been destined to become a kohen even though his father, Eleazar, and his grandfather, Aaron, were kohanim, as Rashi explains (25:13 s.v. “brit kehunat olam”): even though the priesthood was already assigned to the descendants of Aaron, it was only given to Aaron and his four adult sons – Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Itamar. It would then pass on automatically, at birth, to the succeeding generations. Pinchas, who was a minor at that time, was not included because he was too young to be anointed.

Thus, through his quick action, he earned the right of the priesthood for him and his own progeny.

Finally, there is the text in Parashat Mattot (Numbers 31:1-16): “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto your people.’ Moses spoke to the people, saying, ‘Arm men from among yourselves for the army that they may go against Midian and inflict Hashem’s vengeance on Midian. Of every tribe a thousand, throughout all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the war.’ So there were delivered out of the thousands of the Children of Israel a thousand from each tribe, twelve thousand armed [men] for the war. Moses sent them, a thousand from each tribe, with Pinchas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the sacred vessels and the trumpets to blow in his hand. They warred against Midian, as Hashem had commanded Moses, and they killed every male. They killed the kings of Midian beside the rest of them that were slain: Evi, Rekem, Tzur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian; and they slew Balaam son of Beor with the sword. The Children of Israel took captive all the women of Midian, and their young children; and all their cattle and flocks and all their wealth they took as spoils. And they burned all the cities in which they dwelled and all their palaces in fire. They took all the spoils and all the captives of people and animals. They brought the captives, the animals, and the spoils to Moses, to Eleazar the priest, and to the assembly of the Children of Israel to the camp at the plains of Moab, which was by the Jordan near Jericho. Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the assembly went out to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds, who had come from the battle. Moses said to them, ‘Did you let every female live? Behold, they caused the Children of Israel, by the word of Balaam, to commit a betrayal against Hashem in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague in the assembly of Hashem.’”

Though the verse above states that Moses was angry with the commanders of the army – and we might think that this eliminates any wrongdoing on Pinchas’ part, as he was not one of the commanders – this is moot because the Talmud (Perek Meshuach milchama, Sotah 43a) states that Pinchas was sent with the army as a “meshuach milchama – anointed for war,” meaning a priest who is specially anointed to lead the army in war. The Gemara (Sotah 42a-b), based on Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy Ch. 20), defines the mission of this specially anointed priest to be to inspire the army with words of support and to warn them as to what they may not do in the course of war. Thus, if they heeded his words and their war was justified, they were assured victory, as Hashem would surely not desert them.

Additionally, Rashi s.v. “Vayiktzof Moshe al pekudei hechayyil – Moses was angry with the
commanders of the army” (Numbers 31:14), states that this teaches us that the mischief of the
generation depends on the leaders who have the power to protest but do not do so.

We must assume that there was no one greater than Pinchas among the leaders who had the power to protest and reproach the people for any unseemly behavior.

(To be continued)

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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