Pinchas: a model to what not to do

Whoever divided this and last week’s Torah portion must be the spiritual great, great grandparent of modern day suspense movies. Last week, we left the Children of Israel in the middle of a turmoil. After Bil’am’s failure to curse the people, he advises king Balak to get the girls of Midyan and Mo’av to seduce the Israelite men and entice them to idol worship. There is a party, followed by a plague. Moses is confused at the scene, waiting for G-d’s instructions. As he’s trying to make the senseless sensible, Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimeon, approaches wrapped around one of the Midyanite princesses provocatively. The Midrash fills in for us what happened, accordingly, Zimri says to Moses, ‘you have a problem with this? Why, but you yourself took a Midyanite woman to be your wife! You can’t chastise us!’

Moses is dumbfounded, but Pinchas whose training has been in Temple matters, grabs a sword and skews both Zimri and his lady, Kozbi together. They die; the plague stops; last week’s parsha – ends and everybody takes a very deep breath.

Because the Torah wants to keep us hanging and leave us unclear: is Pinchas going to be named a hero or a dangerous lunatic?

G-d awards Pinchas the brit shalom, a covenant of peace. Pinchas, declares G-d, did the right thing for “he has turned My wrath away from the Children of Israel, as he was very jealous for My sake among them” (Numbers 25:11).

What is it about Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, a high priest who engages in bloodshed, that merits this special brit shalom? Some say maybe because of the last two words in the above verse: “among them”. Pinchas did what he did, not for personal gain, but for the sake of the people and their wellbeing. Others suggested we should note the missing spelling of the word “shalom” (sh.l.m. – without a vav): Pinchas gets a covenant but it’s a onetime thing. Complete peace comes from a life filled with kindness, not one brief act. And perhaps, it is because he saw himself as personally obligated to sanctifying G-d’s name, not hiding behind greater leaders who here stood by silently. So often we pretend the commandments are said to an amorphous “everybody” and that “somebody” will do it. Pinchas knew better. He assumed responsibility. What a mensch.

Modern fanatics like to align themselves with Pinchas. And yet, from the somewhat forced explanations we can sense that the rabbis were not comfortable and definitely did not want to encourage this kind of behavior, and that they struggled to understand Pinchas and his reward. True, there are situations when there is no time; when one needs to act quickly and swiftly; when life must be scarified, but this is very (very!) rare and not our role model. We value life and its gifts. Therefore, they created a break between last week and this week. They also taught that even on years when we combine Torah sections due to changes in the calendar (as is the case in a leap year), the Torah portion of Pinchas is always read by itself. The zealots, they told us, might only very rarely be right in their actions, but let us be extra careful with it, and generally stay away from them and their ways.

Towards the end of the parasha, we meet Moses again, explaining how the land should be divided among the tribes, allocating it to men and their sons. Five sisters approach him: “Our father died in the desert… and left no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, (just) because he had no son? Give unto us a (land) inheritance among the brethren of our father.’” (Numbers 27:1-11).

What would Moses do? Draw his sword? Hasten with a quick ruling? No. Instead, Moses “brought their case before G-d” (27:5), and G-s “uses it” to highlight an exception: “yes, the daughters of Tzlofchad are correct; you shall surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren” (27:7).

What if Moses acted like Pinchas, shooting from the hip, and what if Pinchas paused hesitatingly, submitting debatable legal questions to G-d? And mostly we want to know, we need to know, for us: which is which in our own life?

I think the Torah tells us that life is more complex and nuanced that what we think; that no matter how many laws, there is always going to be something that was not covered in the original material; something that will demand of us to stay awake, and make our own good choices.

Shabbat Shalom.

(published in


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