Parashat Pinhas

Zeal And Peace

How can we understand the relationship between Pinhas' act of zealous violence and the covenant of peace he receives as a result?

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

One of the more startling, and for many troubling, episodes of the Torah bridges last week's reading of Parashat Balak with this week's reading of Parashat Pinhas.

The stage is set at the end of Parashat Balak. The king of Midian, unable to destroy the Jews through sorcery, turns to debauchery to serve his nefarious ends. Young women of Midian are sent into the Israelite camp to seduce the Israelites in the name of the false god, Pe'or. As the plan succeeds and the Israelites succumb to temptation, God's wrath is unfurled upon them in the form of a deadly plague.

B'midbar 25:6-10 picks up the story:

Biblical Text 1

"Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites were checked. Those who died of the plague numbered 24,000.

The Lord Spoke to Moses, saying, Pinhas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest has turned back my wrath from the Israelites by displaying his zealousness for me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in my zealousness. Say, therefore, I grant him my covenant of Shalom. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a covenant of priesthood for all time, because he took zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites."

Observations On Biblical Text 1

The Torah's description of Pinhas' action, of Moses's inaction, and of God's reaction raises some disturbing questions. Among them:

1. Does the Torah condone zealousness? Is even murder permitted when performed in the service of one's personal sense of God's will? Are there no limits to what the Torah believes can be done in the name of God?

2. Does Moses' silence and God's 'Covenant of Shalom' with Pinhas imply that zealousness and murder have no consequences? Is Pinhas the model for Jews through the ages to emulate?

These questions stem not only from the sensibilities of the late 20th century liberal. In truth, the story of Pinhas has evoked ambivalent feelings among Jewish sages throughout the ages, as the following texts attest.

Rabbinic Text 1: Talmud Yerushalmi, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7

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Rabbi Howard Alpert is the Executive Director of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.