Updated: Feb 16, 2021
At the end of last week’s Parsha, the Midyanim sent women from their kingdom to seduce the Jewish men and cause them to sin in order that the Jews should lose favor in God’s eyes and be less successful in battle on their way to Eretz Yisrael. Unfortunately, Zimri, the Nasi of Shevet Shimon, publically sinned by bringing Kazbi, a Midianite woman, into his tent in front of many onlookers (Bamidbar 25:6). Pinchas, the son of Elazar, grandson of Aharon HaKohen, kills Kazbi and Zimri, and at the beginning of this week’s Parsha, aptly named in his honor, God himself testifies to Pinchas’s greatness by saying that Pinchas avenged God’s name and is blessed with a “covenant of peace” (25:6). Rashi notes that this was God’s way of putting His stamp of approval on Pinchas’s actions.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz in his Sefer Sichos Mussar notes that the Pasuk repeatedly refers to Pinchas as “ben Elazar ben Aharon,” despite having already disclosed his lineage and connection to Aharon in the last Parsha. It is unusual for the Torah to refer to a person’s lineage every time they are mentioned, and even more unusual for the Torah to mention the person’s grandfather more than once. R’ Chaim notes that this is because we must understand the enormity of what Pinchas did and why it received God’s personal stamp of approval. Pinchas was not a murderer or a zealot by the standard definition of either term. In fact, Pinchas was a direct descendant of Aharon, who is called an “Ohev Shalom V’Rodef Shalom,” a lover and pursuer of peace, by Hillel in Pirkei Avos (1:12). This is not coincidental; this is purposeful. Rashi (25:7) notes that Pinchas is referred to repeatedly as affiliated with Aharon to emphasize that Pinchas, too, was a lover and pursuer of peace.
Simply hearing the story of what Pinchas did, one might have difficulty reconciling Pinchas’s peace-loving persona with his murder of two people. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz writes that the reason Pinchas merited God’s own approval and reward was because Pinchas knew exactly what the moment called for, even and perhaps despite his typically peace-loving nature. Pinchas was a loving, peaceful Jew, and at the same time, felt a degree of Kanaus, zealous vengefulness, regarding Zimri’s blatant Chillul Hashem.
One might think that it is not possible that Pinchas could have valued peace and committed murder! It is essential for us to know that often, feelings we think are mutually exclusive are in fact not so at all. It is tempting to think in black and white terms, that we can only be pursuers of peace OR vengeful zealots or, vis-à-vis God, that He must not love us if we continue to suffer and if He continues to hide Himself from us. Yet, there is no one Who understands and embodies this dialectic more than God Himself.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz cites the Gemara in Yoma (54b), which recounts how at the very moment that the Babylonians entered the Beis HaMikdash to destroy it, the Kruvim were embracing, a sign of God’s love for the Jewish people. Even though the Beis HaMikdash was on the verge of destruction, a direct consequence for our sins, God was showing that at the very same time, He loved us, and that love is unconditional. In fact, it was because of God’s love for us that He spared us physically, and “took out His anger on sticks and stones” (Eicha Raba 4:14) by destroying the Beis HaMikdash. At the same time, the Kruvim provided evidence that God acted out of love.
Pinchas exemplified this idea that one can believe in peace, and sometimes needs to act with what appears to be aggression in order to pursue it. This is why Pinchas was rewarded with a “bris shalom,” a covenant of peace, to show that God understood that Pinchas’s actions in no way negated his inherently peaceful nature. Pinchas recognized that the moment called for affirmative and aggressive action to avenge God’s name, but his actions in no way changed the fact that he was a lover of peace at his core. In fact, his actions showed an immense strength, in that he was able to go against his inherently peaceful nature to do what was needed in the moment.
The term “rodef,” pursuer, is the term used both for someone who tries to promote peace and harmony, as well as for one who seeks to harm his fellow. This is especially ironic when considering the Halachos of a rodef: despite the tremendous value the Torah places on preserving Jewish life, we are actually commanded to kill the rodef, an action that is seemingly diametrically opposite to pursuing peace! When looking at the actions of a rodef, whom we are commanded to kill, and a rodef shalom, whom we seek to emulate, both are pursuers; the only – and key – difference is in their intention and motivation.
Similarly, God’s actions to destroy the Beis HaMikdash, to punish and hide Himself from us, in no way negate the essential and central fact that He loves us, unconditionally. This is both an emboldening and comforting message to consider during the three weeks, but it is also simultaneously a critical consideration when it comes to our own actions with our peers, children, campers, or students. Many of us will be or have been called upon to rebuke, discipline, or punish; it is crucial to take a moment to pause and ensure that our actions are coming from a place of love, and not of anger or, G-d forbid, ego. In fact, research shows that when parents or teachers must punish or rebuke, it is best accepted if it is evident that our actions are meant to help the person grow, and the same is true for giving feedback to partners, friends, or spouses. In deference to Pinchas’s actions, let us try this week to remember when we are disciplining or providing constructive criticism that we must communicate that despite the action we are taking, we are grounded in love and in pursuit of peace.