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 Elders of Israel sought to excommunicate Pinhas until the Holy Spirit hurried and said: "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.'"

[Rabbi Baruch Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah explains: "Such a deed must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of God. In the case, who can tell whether the perpetrator is not really motivated by some selfish motive, maintaining that he is doing it for the sake of God, when he has actually committed murder? That was why the Elders wished to excommunicate Pinhas, had not the Holy Spirit testified that his zeal for God was genuine."]

Observation On Text 1

The Rabbis of the Talmud Yerushalmi (as explained by Rabbi Epstein) understand Pinhas' act as singular, and acceptable only with the testimony of God. No matter what the provocation, zealousness such as Pinhas' requires immediate excommunication; an individual prone to such action cannot be abided in the community. God's intervention on his behalf is understood as both promoting Pinhas as a uniquely righteous individual (can there be another who meets the commentary's standard for selflessness?) and as denying permission for others to follow in his footsteps in an era when God no longer speaks.

Rabbinic Text 2: Midrash Shemos Rabbah 33:5

"Pinhas expounded, 'A horse who goes to war risks his life for his master. How much more so should I risk my life for the sanctification of the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He!' He began to ponder: 'What shall I do? Alone I cannot prevail. Two can overpower one; can one overpower two?" While he was pondering, the epidemic raged among the Israelites.'"

Observation On Text 2

Like the first text, the Midrash Shemot Rabbah also assumes Pinhas' righteousness. To do so, it denies zeal for God as a motive for his actions and sees only that he needed to act in order to end God's plague. Only God may act zealously on his own behalf. Pinhas' action was to save Israelite lives by appeasing God's wrath, and in that regard he is criticized for acting too slowly.

Rabbinic Text 3: Talmud Bavli, Tractate Zevachim 101b

"Pinhas did not become a priest until he had made peace among the Tribes [i.e. between the Tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menasheh, and the rest of Israel."

Observation On Text 3

The Talmud Bavli is less certain of Pinhas then are texts 1 and 2. Were his actions warranted? Perhaps. But their results are those of "Ei-Shalom" (lack of Shalom) and their reward claimable only after Pinhas has compensated for the loss of Shalom that they wrought.

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