Friday, July 10, 2015

Parsha: How Could Pinchas Kill Zimri?

Rav Yehuda Turetsky

The Torah (Bamidbar 25:6-9) concludes last week’s Parsha by recording Pinchas’ heroic actions. Like many others, he witnesses Zimri’s inappropriate behavior with a Midianite woman. Others remain passive, but Pinchas takes the initiative and slays Zimri, effectively serving as judge, jury, and executioner. In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, the Torah (Bamidbar 25:10-13) records God’s response. He blesses Pinchas with a covenant of peace[1] (“Briti Shalom”) and makes Pinchas into a Kohen[2].

Some ask an interesting question. The Torah emphasizes Pinchas’ relationship to Aharon, and he, similar to Aharon, becomes a Kohen. Typically, Kohanim are associated with peace and Chesed; the Mishna (Avot 1:12) even describes Aharon’s defining characteristic as one who pursues peace and brings others closer to Torah.  Yet, Pinchas’ actions appear harsh and callous, anything but what we would expect from a student of Aharon.

How could someone so connected to the ideals of Aharon kill Zimri? Pinchas should have been an “Ish Chesed”, but instead he engages in an act that appears to be so harsh and even ruthless.  And why would the reaction to his act of brutality, albeit righteous and meritorious, make him worthy of receiving a covenant of peace and the Kehunah?

1. The Kedushat Levi (Parshat Pinchas) suggests that Pinchas’ actions are actually a function of his incredible Chesed. What motivates him is not anger towards Zimri, but a strong desire to prevent Zimri from sinning. He acts not out of heartlessness but out of care and compassion. Pinchas believes the greatest act of Chesed he could do is prevent a sinner from sinning.  This helps explain why his reward is becoming a Kohen. His act is the ultimate demonstration of Chesed, albeit in complex circumstances and in a way in which others should certainly not replicate.

2. Perhaps one could suggest an additional idea.  Pinchas’ actions go against his nature. As a descendent of Aharon, he naturally 
excells more in acts of kindness than the kinds of harsh actions demanded here. What makes Pinchas unique was his ability to rise to the occasion when there is a need for him to do so. His greatness lies not only in his ability to do that which he is naturally good at, but also that which is for him more challenging and demanding.

If so, perhaps one can better appreciate Hashem’s response to Pinchas. Pinchas engaged in an act that went against his natural character and abilities. Hashem responds by giving Pinchas a covenant of peace and Kehunah. Perhaps Hashem is showing that Pinchas’ actions did not change who he was as a person. True, he rose to the occasion by killing Zimri, but it did not transform him or come at the expense of his natural kindness and Chesed[3].

[1] There is debate amongst the Mefarshim what is a covenant of peace. See Ibn Ezra, Sefarno, and Netziv (ad loc).
[2] See Rashi (Bamidbar 25:13).
[3]  See Netziv (ibid).

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