Pinchas Remembered, Moses Forgot…
Lovingly dedicated to our first grand-daughter
And to her parents, Yael and Omri
She was born the night of 15 Sivan 5769
May she live in a world of peace!
Chapter 25 describes what happened to the Israelites at Shittim, the provocative act of an Israelite man – Zimri ben Salu, and Pinchas's spontaneous reaction to it. Given the fact that Pinchas's deed stopped the plague, a plain reading of the text hardly allows for it to be seen in anything but a positive light.
According to this reading, the covenant of peace granted to Pinchas is understood to have been a reward for his courageous deed. Pinchas took action at a time of spiritual eclipse, thus saving Israel.
The Sages and later commentators, however, sometimes take a more nuanced attitude towards Pinchas's zealous deed.
On the one hand, the Sages transform a spontaneous act of religious zeal into the application of a law which Pinchas recalled upon witnessing Zimri's sin. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 9:7) we read:
It is written: When Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Priest saw this. What did he see? He saw the incident and recalled the halakhah: "One who has sexual intercourse with an Aramite woman - the zealous kill him." We learned: [This is so even when it is] against the wishes of the Sages and Pinchas [who acted] against the wishes of the Sages. Rabbi Yuda bar Pazi said: They wanted to place a ban on him, but the Holy Spirit jumped up on his behalf and said, It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time (25:13).
On the other hand, however, a halahkic analysis of the case reveals that things are not so simple. Pinhas's action is quite problematic, and only after the fact does it elicit a kind of justification or empathy, as we find in the Babylonian Talmud:
Rava bar bar Hana said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: If one comes for advice [regarding zealous killing] - he is not to be instructed. Not only that; if Zimri had desisted and Pinchas killed him anyway - he [Pinchas] would incur the death penalty for it. If Zimri had turned around and killed Pinchas, he [Zimri] would not incur the death penalty, since he [Pinchas] was about to kill him. (Sanhedrin 82a)
This dictum, brought in the name of R. Yohanan, emphasizes a clear and unambiguous halakhic principle: The law cannot be served through zealous deeds. It was only the uniqueness of the situation and the spontaneity of Pinhas's action that decriminalized his zealous act.
And Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it. Now, what did he see? — Rav said: He saw what was happening and remembered the halakhah, and said to him, "O great-uncle! Did you not teach us this on thy descent from Mount Sinai: He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots?" He replied. "He who reads the letter, let him be the agent [to carry out its instructions]." Shmuel said: He saw that There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the Lord (Proverbs 21): whenever the Divine Name is being profaned, honor must not be paid to one's teacher.
Moses, who had taught Pinchas this halakhah, forgot it and was also unwilling to apply it.
This forgetfulness is reminiscent of the Talmudic story of how Shmuel HaKatan composed the benediction against the minim [sectarians]:
Our Rabbis taught: Shimon ha-Pakuli arranged the eighteen benedictions in order before Rabban Gamliel in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel said to the Sages: Can any one among you frame a benediction relating to the Minim? Shmuel HaKatan arose and composed it. The next year he forgot it. (Berakhot 28b, based on Soncino translation)
Shmuel HaKatan's philosophy is summarized in Pirkei Avot 4:19: "Do not rejoice at your enemy's downfall." Thus, it is not surprising that it was difficult for him to remember the benediction against minim a year after he composed it, and perhaps it is not coincidental that he volunteered to compose it a year earlier, knowing that his lack of hatred for others made him the best person for the job.
Furthermore, the expression "the next year" – lashana ha'aheret – literally "to the other year" – points to another perspective, another way of looking at things. We know that the Hanukkah holiday was not founded hastily, but rather lashanah ha'aheret. The tractate Avodah Zara tells us of Adam's anxiety when he saw the days were shortening. When he discovered the yearly cycle he marked the days of his anxiety and thanksgiving beshanah ha'aheret.
If so, perhaps after waiting a year, Shmuel HaKatan reconsidered the relevance and justification of reciting his benediction.
Perhaps Moses forgot the halakhah not only because of his weakness and Zimri ben Salu's subversive question, but perhaps also because he thought that there was no "halakhic" possibility of meting out human punishment to Zimri. Perhaps Moses feared that if he did punish Zimri it would come as a response to personal insult, or at least it would be seen as such.
Later commentators were also aware of zealotry's problematic nature. R. Barukh Epstein, author of the Torah Temimah commentary, wrote:
This must be performed in an authentic spirit of giving honor to God. If so, who knows? Perhaps the zealot claims to be motivated by zealousness for God, but is in fact pursuing some external interest, killing someone whose death is not really demanded by the law.
Rabbi Epstein postulates that we can never be sure of the purity of a zealot's motives; thus proper legal procedure is set at risk.
The NeTziV views the pact of peace given to Pinchas not as a reward, but rather as a blessing that every zealot (Pinchas included) is in need of. The killing of a person injures the soul of the perpetrator. Even though Pinchas's intentions were pure, there is no guarantee that the zealot's soul will emerge unscathed by zealous killing, even if that killing appears to be justified. The NeTziV writes:
As reward for pacifying God's wrath and anger, He blessed him with the quality of peacefulness, i.e., that he not be strict or upset. This was necessary because the act committed by Pinchas, of killing someone, naturally leaves a strong emotional impression, but since it was performed for the sake of Heaven, he received the blessing that he always be calm and peaceful, and that this matter [of having killed] should not affect his heart.
(He'amek Davar 25:12)
May we conclude that zealousness should be rejected altogether?
I think that conclusion is too sweeping. Examination of a further example of zealousness may help us distinguish between its different varieties.
As opposed to Pinchas's zealotry, which involved extra-judicial bloodshed, Moses' breaking of the original, divinely-crafted Tablets in response to the sin of the golden calf is viewed by the Sages and later exegetes as an act of supreme courage. For example, Rashi writes in his comments on the Torah's closing verse:
Before the eyes of all Israel - This refers to the fact that his heart inspired him to shatter the Tablets before their eyes, as it is said And I broke them before your eyes (Devarim 9:17), and the opinion of the Holy One blessed be He, regarding this action agreed with his opinion, as it is stated that God said of the Tablets, asher shavarta [which you broke] (Shemot 34:1) yiyshar kohakha [may your strength be fitting] because you broke them.
(Rashi Devarim 34:12, based on Silberman translation)
Both Pinchas and Moses see something and react with shock. In Bamidbar 25:7, we read: Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.
In the story of the calf (Shemot 32:19) we read: Now it came to pass when he drew closer to the camp and saw the calf and the dances, that Moses' anger was kindled, and he flung the tablets from his hands, shattering them at the foot of the mountain.
While the Sages justify Moses' deed, their attitude towards Pinchas's act is more complex. Perhaps the difference between the two stories does not hinge upon degrees of religious fervor or the need to send a strong message in order to stop spiritual degeneration. Perhaps the relevant difference is between breaking (divinely crafted) Tablets and killing a human being (the divine image). Objects, even if fashioned by God, cannot possess holiness; only human beings can aspire to holiness. R. Meir MiDvinsk wrote of this in his Torah commentary, Meshekh Hokhma:
All of the types of holiness, [that of] the Land of Israel, Jerusalem and the Temple, they are but details and branches of the Torah, and they are sanctified through the Torah's holiness... Do not imagine, God forbid, that the Temple and the Tabernacle are intrinsically holy objects! God dwells among His sons, and if they, to a man, have transgressed the Covenant (Hosea 6:7), all holiness is removed from them, and they become like profane vessels "intruders came and desecrated it." Titus entered the Holy of Holies with a prostitute and was not harmed (Gittin 56b) because its holiness had been removed. More than that - the Tablets - the writing of God - are not Holy in themselves, but only for you. When the bride [Israel] went a whoring in her bridal canopy [the sin of the golden calf] they became like earthen shards lacking any intrinsic holiness, but only [holy] for you, when you observe them. At the end of the day, there is nothing in the world worthy of worship and submission. Only God is holy in His necessary existence, and to Him praise and worship is fitting…
...None of the holy places are founded in religion, but rather from the nation and the roots, such as Mount Moriah from which man was created (Sanhedrin 38b), and there Abraham offered up Isaac, and it was chosen by a prophet. Religion only spoke of a place which God shall choose (Devarim 12:5, etc.). [As for] Mount Sinai, the place of religion, as soon as the Divine Presence left it - the sheep and cattle climbed up it (Shemot 19:13)!
The midrash in Eikhah Rabbah (4) also expresses the difference between the destruction of stones (even those of the Temple) and the killing of human beings:
It is written, A psalm of Assaf. O God, the heathen are come into your inheritance (Psalms 79:1) The text should have used a phrase like, Weeping of Assaf, Lament of Assaf, Dirge of Assaf; why does it say, A psalm of Assaf? It may be likened to a king who erected a bridal-chamber for his son which he plastered, cemented, and decorated; but his son entered upon an evil course of living. The king forthwith ascended to the chamber, tore the curtains and broke the rods; the [the son's] tutor took a piece of rod which he used as a flute and played upon it. People said to him, "The king has overthrown his son's chamber and you sit playing a tune!" He replied to them, "I play a tune because the king overturned his son's chamber but did not pour out his anger upon his son." Similarly, people said to Assaf, "The Holy One, blessed be He, has caused Temple and Sanctuary to be destroyed, and you sit singing a Psalm!" He replied to them, "I sing a Psalm because the Holy One, blessed be He, poured out His wrath upon wood and stone and not upon Israel." That is what is written, and He has kindled a fire in Zion, which has devoured the foundations thereof. (Soncino translation)
There may be room to consider the zealot's motivation, since as the NeTzIV and the author of Torah Temimah suggest, violent zealotry can be destructive of the human soul and hatred overturns acceptable behavior. But could it not also be true that sometimes moderation can turn into shallowness or insufficient devotion to ideals?
There may be no clear and unambiguous solution to this dilemma, leaving every individual to take responsibility for his or her own decisions. Nonetheless, the difference between the way our Sages relate to Moses and their more complicated take on Pinchas may teach us that we must also take on board the important principle that human life is more important than stones and soil and that objects posses no inherent holiness; holiness depends only on the deeds of human beings who aspire to becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.