Parsha Pinchas: Who Gets to Judge?

During Rabbi Mark’s sabbatical this summer B’nai Emunah members are helping lead services and prepare drashot. This drash was delivered this past Shabbat by Andrew Nusbaum.


This week we see the conclusion of the story of Pinchas. Before we get into the narrative, it’s interesting to note that there are only five parshiyot that are named after Biblical characters: Noah, Yitro, Korah, Balak, and finally, Pinchas. Why? What is special about these characters, three non-Jews and two Jews, three heroes and two quasi-villains? One connection could be that all of these characters manage to surprise us: Noah seems holy but gets drunk, Jethro goes from a pagan outsider to a loyal ally (and in-law), Korah is from “the right family” but goes astray, Balak tries to curse the Jewish people but ends up blessing them instead, and finally we have Pinchas. Pinchas, like Korah, is another relative of Moses, who also engages in some questionable behavior and goes against the status quo. The difference is that, unlike Korah, the tradition sees Pinchas as a hero—which, as we shall see, makes things a little tricky for us.

Let’s step back and review the story thus far: the Hebrews have made camp in Shittim and have started committing both idol worship and harlotry with the local Moabites. We are told that this caused God’s anger to flare against the Hebrews in the form of a plague, killing 24,000. God told Moses that the only way to stop the plague would be to execute the wayward Hebrews. The text does not give us insight into Moses’ psychology at this moment, but we do see him start to gather the leaders to implement God’s command. Before he can begin, however, something surprising happens: a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri son of Salu, takes a Midianite princess, Cozbi, into his tent where they have a romantic liaison. Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, outraged, grabs his spear and skewers the two, killing them. Surprisingly, the Torah offers no editorial commentary to this, simply noting, “the plague ceased from the children of Israel.” Imagine hearing this story for the first time, and sitting in anticipation to hear the conclusion. What do you suppose might happen next?

Whatever your guess, chances are you would be surprised by the end of the story. When our parsha opens to complete the cliff-hanger, rather than being punished, Pinchas is actually congratulated by name! God announces that Pinchas has turned His anger away by “zealously avenging me” and rewards him with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace, as well as the “eternal priesthood”.

Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. The man who just turned a couple into a human pincushion has now been granted a special covenant of peace? What’s going on here?

The dominant narrative in the tradition has argued, following the plain meaning of the text, that Pinchas is rewarded because he is “zealous” for God—note that Zimri and Cozbi’s liaison takes place immediately after God’s order to execute the wayward Hebrews. In Balak, we read that the whole congregation was in front of the Tabernacle, weeping—over the plague, or possibly over the order to kill their own people. Pinchas, the rabbis imagine, was so furious, so outraged, at Zimri’s flagrant show of chutzpah and insensitivity—to God and to the people—that he was overcome by zealotry and took the law into his own hands. Many of the rabbis hold Pinchas up as a positive role model, a man who defended God when no one else would. There is even an expression in the Talmud that hypocrisy is defined as “one who acts like Zimri and expects the reward of Pinchas.”

And yet… Not everyone seems so sure that Pinchas was truly in the right. The Jerusalem Talmud says Pinchas “acted against the will of the sages,” and would have been excommunicated from the people if not for God’s intervention. Several rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud emphasize that if anyone asks for permission to emulate Pinchas, “we do not instruct him to do so.” Additionally, they point out that if Zimri had stopped making love to Cozbi and was then killed by Pinchas, that Pinchas would have received the death penalty as a murderer. (Or, alternately, if Zimri had managed to kill Pinchas it would have been a case of justifiable self-defense.) The rabbis also imagine the community criticizing Pinchas for killing a tribal prince for fooling around with a Midianite when he himself was descended from Jethro—even as they defend him, they project discontent among his peers! Others interpret the narrative break between Parsha Balak and Parsha Pinchas as an indicator of a character flaw on Pinchas’ part—the text is not complete because somehow Pinchas is incomplete.

Some rabbis, puzzled by the story, turn to Zimri, to try to unpack his motivations. One midrash imagines that Zimri was not acting out of personal lust, but rather out of a desire to protect his tribe: seeing that Moses was putting men to death for mixed relationships, the men of Shimon asked Zimri to do something, which prompted him to take Cozbi and bring her to Moses, asking if she was permitted or forbidden—and noting, “if you say that she is forbidden, who permitted you to marry your Midnianite wife?” In this view, Zimri’s act could be seen as a form of political theater, meant to challenge Moses’ right to punish the Hebrews. Though the rabbis teach that Zipporah converted, the fact that this argument is even recorded as part of the tradition stands as a powerful critique, echoing Korah’s earlier statement about the whole people being holy. A mystical view popularized by the Ari (R. Isaac Luria) imagines Zimri and Cozbi as reincarnations of Shechem and Dina, with their union actually being intended by God as a way of achieving a spiritual purification—they were, literally, soulmates. This fascinating argument turns the whole narrative on its head, turning: Pinchas, not Zimri, into the one who went against God’s will!

Despite these alternate theories about Zimri, however, the main focus remains on Pinchas. The rabbis employ several strategies to try to justify his behavior. One is by listing various miracles that God provided for Pinchas, suggesting divine approval. Another is to cite God’s repeated identification of Pinchas as Aaron’s grandson, establishing his positive family and personality traits. Finally, the rabbis spend a great deal of time discussing the text’s use of the term “zealot.”

Rashi tells us that the word for zealot, kanai, comes from a root word meaning jealousy. He argues that someone who is zealous for God goes beyond their intellect to a level of pure instinct—responding with violence to any perceived desecration of God’s name or reputation. Claiming an oral tradition from Sinai, the Talmud lists three actions to which a zealot may respond by killing the perpetrator: stealing holy utensils for the Temple, cursing God through idolatry, or having sexual relations with an idolatrous woman. In all three cases, commentators note, the offending act is seen as standing between the Hebrews and God. Interestingly enough, however, the rabbis add that there is no obligation to be a zealot (classifying it as “a law that is not instructed”), and that one’s motives must be of the highest level in order to qualify as a zealot—the moment one ceases to be pure (or asks permission), one’s zealotry has become mere murder, and one is liable for the death penalty.

We actually have several groups in Jewish history who have called themselves zealots—not only the Zealots of Jerusalem who contributed to the city’s downfall at the hands of the Romans, but also Matityahu, the first leader of the Maccabees, who cried, “Whoever is zealous for the Lord, follow me!” The tradition seems unable to decide whether being a zealot is actually a good thing or not.

There is one last zealot who is at least a little more familiar: Elijah. After Elijah triumphs over the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel, he leads the Hebrews in slaughtering them. On the run from Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah flees to Mount Horeb. There, God asks him why he has come and he says, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty” (1 Kings 19:14). Not only does this section of Elijah’s story become chosen as the haftarah for this Parsha; the Talmud explicitly connects the two men through midrash, saying that Elijah was actually Pinchas, who, thanks to his Brit Shalom, managed to live to the ripe age of 600. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that while God rewards both men for their zealousness, he also “gently rebukes” them.

Remember, on the mountain, Elijah is shown a whirlwind, earthquake and fire by God, but sees that he is not present in any of these—he only encounters God in “a still, small voice,” a whisper. Rabbi Sacks comments that after this, God again asks Elijah why he has come to Horeb—and Elijah gives the same answer as before, citing his zealous acts. A midrash teaches that in response to this, God got exasperated at Elijah, telling him, “Israel cannot withstand your zealotry. You were zealous at Shittim [as Pinchas] and now you were zealous at Mount Carmel. You spilled blood there and you spilled blood here, in your zeal for God. That is a noble deed, but Israel cannot survive such zeal.” According to Rabbi Sacks, God was trying to show Elijah that “He is not to be found in violent confrontation, but in gentleness.” Elijah’s failure to understand this, we are told, leads directly to him being replaced by Elisha.

Similarly, Rabbi Sacks observes that by definition, Pinchas’ covenant of peace should preclude him from ever needing to act as a zealot again. To some commentators, the function of the Brit Shalom is to change his character, to steer him towards a gentler path. Even the very word, shalom, is noteworthy—if the word is written with a vav, it reads shalom (peace), without it, it reads shalem (whole). Fascinatingly, in the Hebrew text, the shalom that Pinchas receives is written with a broken vav—neither fully peace nor fully whole! The rabbis say that the vav is left broken precisely to show that though Pinchas’ act may have been justifiable, true shalom cannot come through violence. Pinchas’ deed may have been appropriate for his particular circumstance (or not) but it seems understood that it cannot become an example for the masses.

Much of what makes Parsha Pinchas so challenging is that no one’s motivations are clear, and perhaps this is a key to understanding one of its possible lessons: at times we all judge one another, deciding that someone has done something inappropriate, or incorrectly, or simply differently from us. That is only natural, and to a degree, necessary, in the context of a community or society. However, as our Parsha shows us, there must also be a balance, an awareness that we may not always have all the facts or all the answers—even when it comes to ourselves or our own motivations or instincts.

In our modern times, zealotry, fundamentalism, and violence all carry very negative connotations, and with good reason, so at the end of the day, what do we do with this Parsha which contains all three? Perhaps it is best if we see it as a challenge to our intellectual honesty: we have inherited a tradition of both thought and action, but there are times in life where there is no time to think and action is required. Whatever his faults, at the moment of truth, in the midst of plague, surrounded by thousands of elders who presumably knew the law just as well as him, Pinchas managed to act—despite the risks, perhaps even despite doubt. As potentially dangerous as zealotry is, as much as our modern sensibilities may recoil from it, the tradition seems to be saying (even as it tries to legislate it away) that we must, at our core, also have some respect for it. Think of Moses, back in Egypt. He sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. What does he do? He kills the guard. We read of neither fanfare nor recrimination, but in truth, Moses’ act of violence is not so different from Pinchas’—and yet much less ink and angst have been spent analyzing this killing than the ones in our Parsha. So perhaps part of the lesson is that we must be very, very, careful with zealotry, but still acknowledge its potential to exist in some legitimate form, if only as a minor exception.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk makes a very valuable point in analyzing Pinchas’ story—he notes that this Parsha is also the one in which Moses asks God to help him name a successor. Given how much praise Pinchas’ zealotry receives, one might think that he would be appointed to succeed Moses rather than Joshua. However, this never happens. Why? The Kotzker’s answer is simple: a zealot cannot be a leader, because leadership requires patience, thought, and respect for the rule of law, all things that by definition, a zealot lacks. The tradition may not condemn zealotry as criminal, but it certainly seems to view it as precarious. In the fallible and imperfect world we inhabit, occasionally zealotry may be a necessary evil, but at our tradition’s core, it is not the path we are taught to follow.




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