Parshas Pinchas: Zealotry and righteous motives

In Parshas Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, is awarded the priesthood as a result for his zealous actions at the end of Parshas Balak, in which he killed an Israelite official for going astray with a Midianite woman. The Parsha also deals with a number of other topics, including a census among the Israelites, the division of land, Moshe Rabbenu’s empowerment of Joshua and the daily offerings. Commentaries on the Parsha reveal fascinating insights into Pinchas’ lineage, motives and background. We also learn about the numerous arguments brought against Pinchas by the Israelites, including that he was inherently violent, and that he acted disrespectfully towards Moshe Rabbenu.

We know for a fact that Pinchas acted correctly. Had his actions not been sanctioned by Torah law, he would have been put to death for murder. Upon seeing Zimri’s sin, Moshe Rabbenu momentarily forgot the law regarding the correct response to such an action and failed to act. Pinchas was not trying to disrespect or shame Moshe by killing Zimri and the Midianite woman; he was the only man who remembered the law regarding this situation and took it upon himself to act when no one else could or would.

The Israelites also argued that Pinchas acted not out of moral necessity, but rather out of a love for violence. They believed that Pinchas was not actually a zealot, but rather that he was bloodthirsty and was looking for an excuse- any excuse- to kill Zimri. They attempted to prove their point by tracing his lineage back to Yitro. Yitro fattened calves for the slaughter, and it is implied through his occupation that he was cruel to animals, and enjoyed strengthening them only to eventually kill them. The Israelites failed to mention that Yitro was an idolator, because this cannot be inherited, whereas cruelty and a love for violence can be.

Rashi explains, however, that Scripture traces Pinchas’ lineage to Aharon- not his other grandfather, Yitro- to indicate that the zealot inherited Aharon’s nature. Aharon is described as an inherently peaceful individual, who not only loved peace but sought to bring it upon the quarrelling Israelites. This is why his death was mourned by the people in a manner far more intense than the mourning of Aharon’s siblings. As such, we learn that Pinchas was in no way a violent individual, but rather that he had inherited Aharon’s kindness and peacefulness.

Through reading the Torah and commentaries, we thus conclude that Pinchas acted correctly. He acted out of devotion for G-d, and stringent observance of the law. His motives were neither violent nor self-centred; he acted as a genuinely devoted zealot, and in doing so, brought about the end of a plague which had consumed the encampments. But motives aren’t always as sound as Pinchas’. Sometimes, people act in a manner which seems outwardly zealous, but in fact stems from a number of self-serving ideals.

For example, in Parshas Kedoshim, we read; “You shall surely rebuke your fellow”. This is a commandment; if someone is breaking or disrespecting a Torah law, we are required to tell them so. But directly before this commandment, we read; “You shall not hate your brother in your heart”. This is the key to rebuking someone in accordance with the law. We cannot rebuke out of hatred; a rebuke must come from the heart, and with the intention of helping those around you.

This complex mitzvah lies parallel to the zealous actions of Pinchas. Had he killed Zimri because he hated him, and was glad to find a lawful opportunity to kill him, then he would not have been a zealot. Neither would it have been zealotry if he killed Zimri and the Midianite out of bloodthirst. However, because it was an act of devotion to G-d, it was not only permitted but the cause of great honour to be bestowed upon him.

It’s the same with delivering a rebuke. One must do so only with the best intentions, and only after having examined the situation carefully. Perhaps the person we were about to rebuke is not actually acting in a disrespectful or unlawful manner; for example, one may be breaking Shabbos to save a life. A good rule to live by is to rebuke oneself before rebuking another. This is illustrated by a Chassidic tale involving the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov once encountered a preacher who spoke at length about his listeners’ sins. Upon hearing him, the Baal Shem Tov remarked; “It is amazing that you know so much about sinning when you have never done so yourself”. The preacher reacted with puzzlement, to which the Baal Shem Tov replied, “Surely, if you yourself had sinned, you would speak of your own sins before condemning those of others!”.

In this tale, the Baal Shem Tov not only teaches us an important lesson about rebukes, but he also goes great lengths to avoid directly confronting the preacher and causing him embarrassment- at no point does he outright say that the preacher has sinned! Actions of this sort are truly worthy of merit- and so are those of Pinchas. We must always remember to examine our motives before we act, no matter how lofty our actions initially seem to be.

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