In the aftermath of the episode of Zimri and the Midianite women, Hashem struck down 24,000 Jews. Yet immediately afterward, Hashem reaffirmed his tremendous love for Israel. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, explains that this is in character with Hashem’s quality of chastising severely the nation he loves so dearly.
“And those who died by the plague were 24,000” (25:9). When our opponents read this, they declare Hashem had just reason for rejecting the Jews, who had failed His trust, and therefore He chose the more righteous gentiles. But against this falsification, the voice of the Torah after this episode is loud and clear:
“Behold, to Hashem your G-d belong the heavens and the heavens over the heavens, the earth and all therein. Only in your fathers did Hashem delight to love them; and He chose their seed after them, you of all the nations, as of this day” (Devarim 10:15).
And among the last prophets, Ezekiel speaks:
“And I shall make with them a covenant of peace; an everlasting covenant it shall be with them; and I shall establish them and multiply them and shall put My sanctuary in their midst forever. And My dwelling-place shall be with them, and I shall be to them a G-d and they shall be My people. And the nations shall know that I, G-d, make Israel holy, when My sanctuary shall be in their midst forever (Yecheskel 37:25-28).
All the sins of the generation of the Wilderness were minimal; and despite everything, these men were beloved by Hashem more than anyone or anything in the entire Universe. They were most severely chastised solely because they were more close to Hashem than any other generation. “By My close ones I shall be sanctified” (Vayikra 10:9). “Him that Hashem loves, He chastises [or: rebukes], like a father to a son that he favors” (Mishle 3:12). Let us keep in mind the verse spoken later (35:34): “For I am Hashem that dwells in the midst of the sons of Israel.”
A surprising statement is made by our Sages: Pinchas cast down the dead bodies of Zimri and the Midianite woman, and he said to Hashem: Is it for these that 24,000 of Israel should perish? (Sanhedrin 44A). But were the 24,000 not punished for their own sins that they committed? How could Pinchas say they perished because of Zimri and the Midianite woman? According to the Ramban, the sins of those who yielded to the women and ate of the Peor offerings (25:1-3) were expected to be atoned by slaying the guilty ones as Hashem commanded (25:4).
According to this opinion of the Ramban, had Zimri not attempted his public act of wickedness, all would have been forgiven. But when Zimri, a prominent Shimeonite (25:14), publicly attempted his scornful licentiousness, many of the Shimeonites demonstrated their support and approval. Thereupon Hashem’s wrath was aroused at the nation in general and at Shimeon particularly; and in the plague that now began. Twenty-four thousand (mostly of Shimeon) perished. For such an open desecration, which was approved by many spectators, the entire tribe of Shimeon (and many others) might have been wiped out, had not Pinchas arisen to defend Hashem’s honor by a public act that atoned for the Sons of Israel (25:13) and stopped the plague.
(This number does not include those put to death by the judges of Israel for their involvement with Baal Peor (25:5). Thus it seems that these 24,000 were not guilty of actual idolatry. At most, they were sympathizers of Zimri. The number of those put to death because of Baal Peor is not stated, but we see they were relatively few in comparison to the victims of the plague.)
Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.
For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.