Last week’s Torah portion, Balak, concludes with the zealous act of Pinchas, whose deed resulted in putting an end to the terrible plague which killed twenty-four thousand Jews. Our Rabbis teach us that the master mind behind this plague was Bilam. (See Numbers 24: 14, and Rashi’s commentary.) Bilam is hired to curse the Jewish nation but learns that he cannot do so. G-d’s answer to him is very simple: the nation of Israel is blessed! This is a law of the universe. Whether one is willing to accept it or not, Israel is the chosen people. This is not just something that Balak, Bilam, the Moabites, and the Midyanites had to learn. But it is a lesson to all of mankind. G-d chose the nation of Israel and blessed it. Throughout history there have been many others who tried to convince themselves that Israel had lost its position as a Chosen People because of its sins. They pointed to the facts that the Jewish nation had been exiled from their homeland, that they are only a small minority of the world’s population, and that they have suffered constant persecution and abuse. How, then, can they be the Chosen People? The idea that Israel is no longer the Chosen People was proven wrong time and time again throughout history as Israel out lived its oppressors. The idea totally fell apart when the Jewish people returned to their homeland after 2000 years of exile, revived their language, and restored their patrimony to a land flowing with milk and honey.
As we discussed in our last lesson, the goal of Balak and the Moabites was to prevent the Jewish nation from reaching the land of Israel. They tried to achieve this by having Bilam curse the nation, thus changing the Divine plan, which of course is impossible. Bilam’s envy for the Jewish nation was too great for him to go home without some kind of victory. The second best thing in his eyes was to cause suffering and pain to the Jewish nation by slowing down the redemption process. His plan was to have the Moabite women seduce the men of Israel and draw them into worshiping idolatry. This was partially successful, causing the death of twenty-four thousand Jews, but greater tragedy was averted because of Pinchas’ intervention. Who was Pinchas? What caused him to do what he did? Why couldn’t Moshe Rabeynu solve the problem? After the Jewish nation began to sin with Peor (in a particularly debased form of idol worship), G-d commands Moshe Rabeynu to assemble the Judges of Israel in order to punish the sinners accordingly. Before the judges can do as they’re told, Zimri ben Saluh, head of the tribe of Shimon, comes along, and in front of the entire congregation of Israel, including Moshe Rabeynu, takes a Midyanite woman of royal descent, Cazbi Bat Tzur, into his tent with the obvious intention of lying with her. Interestingly, there’s no mention in the description of these events that Zimri worshiped idols, which would be the only capital offense requiring the death penalty. How, then did Pinchas take the liberty of executing Zimri? The Talmud teaches us that Zimri justified his relationship with Cazbi on the grounds that Moshe Rabeynu himself was married to the daughter of a gentile priest of Midyan. Moshe Rabeynu is thrown off balance, as we can see in the verse which describes his weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. This is atypical behavior, as we can see in Moshe Rabeynu’s reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf, when he immediately stands up to the entire nation of Israel and burns and grinds the calf into dust (Exodus 32, verse 20). Moshe has been thrown off balance by Zimri’s claim and by the fact that Zimri is not an ordinary person, but head of a tribe. In addition, G-d did not command Moshe to punish Zimri in the same way that He had required Moshe to punish the worshipers of Baal Peor. Moshe Rabeynu tried to recall the oral teachings that he received from G-d on Mt. Sinai, but, according to the Talmud, Moshe forgot the appropriate punishment for Zimri’s crime. It was Pinchas who reminded him of the law and was told by Moshe to do what he thought proper. According to Jewish law, a priest who has blood on his hands can no longer serve as a priest of Israel. Ironically, even though only the offspring of a priest could become a priest, Pinchas earns his priesthood and the covenant of peace by doing something which goes against the priesthood–killing. Why then did G-d make this exception?
According to talmudic teachings, one of Pinchas’ ancestors was Yitro, a former idol worshiper. The tribe of Shimon was outraged that the descendant of a gentile priest should take it on himself to kill a prince of Israel. Hashem’s rewarding Pinchas with the priesthood is a validation of Pinchas’ action. Indeed the role of the priest is to perpetuate the Jewish nation–which was Pinchas’ motivation for killing Zimri and Cazbi. Pinchas saw the terrible danger to the Jewish people of assimilation into the gentile world of idolatry. This is exactly what Bilam and the others wanted. Intermarriage would cause the nation of Israel to disappear and there would be no one left in the world to carry on its special mission.
Interestingly, another act of zeal which prevented mass assimilation took place in the “backyard” of the community of Itamar. Shimon and Levi wiped out the city of Shechem after the rape Jacob’s daughter Dina. As we may recall, Shechem Ben Chamur wanted the children of Jacob to intermarry and assimilate with them. It even involved relatives of Pinchas and Zimri– Levi, of which Pinchas is a part, and Shimon, whom Zimri is a tribe member. It can be argued that Zimri was trying to rectify Shimon’s violent act by taking a gentile women and uplifting her. Instead of making war against the Midyanites, he thought that he could uplift them spiritually. He could even point to the precedent of Joshua, who married Rachov, a non-Jewish woman who later converted to Judaism. Unfortunately, however, it was Casbi who influenced Zimri and endangered the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith Itamar
*Pinchas is buried in Givat Pinchas, today know as Awarta, an Arab village right outside Itamar