Parashat Pinhas: The peaceful zealot

Phinehas is forced to step out of character for the ultimate good - and peace - of the nation.

Haredim riot  224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredim riot 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"Phinehas the son of Elazar, son of Aaron the priest, turned back My wrath from upon the children of Israel when he zealously expressed My zealousness among them... therefore I am giving him My covenant of peace" (Numbers 25:11, 12). At the very end of last week's portion we read that a prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salu, publicly cohabited with Midianite princess Cozbi bat Zur in front of Moses and the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas saw this brazen act, he seized a spear and pierced the fornicating man and woman to death (Numbers 25:6-8). It was the spontaneous stroke of a zealous man meting out punishment without resorting to due process. The quick action was the act of a zealot, a fanatic who sees himself as the sole protector of the faith. Is it therefore not strange that Phinehas receives the divine covenant of peace together with eternal kehuna (priesthood)? A zealot may be credited with passion, commitment and conviction, but hardly with peacefulness! Indeed the talmudic sages, when characterizing Aaron the High Priest, emphasize the quality of peace: "Hillel would say, 'Be among the disciples of Aaron: Love peace, pursue peace, love humanity and bring them close to Torah'" (Avot 1, 12). Aren't zealotry and the pursuit of peace at opposite ends of the spectrum? To explain why God's gift of peace is bestowed on Phinehas the zealot, we need to turn to the Book of Judges, examining an incident from later history which highlights Phinehas as a mediating peacemaker. Many years have passed (Joshua 22); the Bible records that under Joshua's leadership, the major conquest of the land has been accomplished, paving the way for the Reubenites, the Gadites and half the tribe of Manasseh to return to the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan River - good grazing land for their cattle that they had requested from Moses before the battles against the Canaanites began (Numbers 32). The two and a half tribes arrive in their desired lands and immediately erect an altar near the Jordan, "...a large altar, for everyone to see" (Joshua 22:10). The other tribes are incensed; they see the erection of a large altar in trans-Jordan - far from the central sanctuary in Shiloh - as an act of rebellion against God, a declaration of independence. "And when the children of Israel heard of it, the whole congregation of the children of Israel gathered at Shiloh to rise up in battle" (Joshua 22:12). But before they declare a civil war, they dispatch Phinehas the son of Elazar the kohen (priest), together with 10 tribal heads, to attempt a peaceful resolution. Phinehas's delegation brilliantly reminds them of the disastrous plague that descended on the nation when they first began to worship the Peor idol and cohabit with Moabite and Midianite women - an obvious reference to the fornication which led to Phinehas's own act of zealotry and the cessation of the plague (Numbers 12:10-18). Phinehas explains that the building of an altar separate from the central one in Shiloh will have repercussions, endangering the entire nation of Israel - a hint that the remaining 10 tribes would be forced to take action against them to prevent a disastrous plague. The underlying motif of Phinehas's argument is the importance of remaining one nation - each responsible for the actions of the other - despite the distances that separate them. In the interest of unity, he tells them that if they feel "defiled or contaminated" by their distance from the sanctuary on the other side of the Jordan, the 10 tribes are willing to take them back to the western side, even though this would mean giving up some of their own land. The response of the two and a half tribes magnifies the theme of unity: It was never their intention to have the altar replace the sanctuary in Shiloh. Theirs was not an act of rebellion. Indeed, they intended their altar to serve as a symbol of the unity of faith and nationality between the tribes on both sides of the Jordan. Sacrifices would be offered only in Shiloh. His return to the children of Israel in Canaan marks Phinehas as a successful peace maker, revealing the essence of his personality as a true kohen and lover of peace who, when younger, had been forced by extreme circumstances to act like a zealot. With this in mind, let us review the events in Numbers: The Israelites have begun to commit harlotry with the Moabite women, justifying their immorality by attaching themselves to the hedonistic philosophy of Baal Peor - "It's good if it feels good; whatever is natural is positive." God then instructs Moses, and Moses instructs the judges to execute all the leaders of this idolatrous wave. But at that very moment a prince of the tribe of Shimon publicly fornicates with a Midianite woman - daring Moses, whose own wife was a Midianite - to punish him. Moses is momentarily paralyzed. The entire nation is aghast at the impudent rebellion; the elders are weeping at the Tent of Meeting. Phinehas, usually a respected and peaceful mediator, understands that if he does not act at once, Moses and his divine laws will have been silenced and Jewish history will end, so he is forced to step out of character for the ultimate good - and peace - of the nation. Or perhaps there is an alternative perspective - that in fact Phinehas was always a zealot, but because he once acted in a way that saved the nation, God granted him the gift which is truly the goal of Israel, the gift of peace and the covenant of compassion. Whatever may have been the true character of Pineas, one message is clear: Even if an act of zealotry is called for in an unusual circumstance, fanaticism must be neither our national norm nor our national goal. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.