This parsha is a continuation of the dramatic events of last week. Pinchas ended a devastating plague by driving a spear through the prince of the tribe of Shimon together with the princess of Moav. Yet, according to Midrash Tanchuma, this act of zealotry caused great anger and discord among some Jews.
The Midrash describes their moral outrage against Pinchas:
“… the tribes rose up against him and said ..this man, whose mother’s father fattened calves for idolatry, has killed a tribal prince of Israel!”
Their anger was based on the fact that, from their perspective, Pinchas’s lineage was tainted. On his mother’s side Pinchas was related to Yitro, a descendant of Moav (Talmud Baba Basra110A). He did indeed start out as an idol worshiper, However, later in life Yitro was inspired to convert to Judaism after witnessing the miracles that the Jewish People experienced.
As if to counter this claim, the Torah states the noble, paternal, lineage of Pinchas:
“Pinchas the son of Eliezer, the son of Aaron the Priest. “(Numbers 25:11)
Regardless of his ancestry, the detractors of Pinchas seemed to have ignored some dramatic facts on the ground.
Through his bold action, Pinchas both stopped a plague that had already consumed 24,000 people. and brought reconciliation between G-d and the Jewish People.
Yet these Jews were fixated on Pinchas’s lineage – “how dare someone, whose maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of an idol worshiper from Moav, kill Zimri – the prince of the tribe of Shimon!”
There’s quite a bit of irony in their moral indignation. After all, Zimri, the prince of Shimon wasn’t exactly an innocent bystander. He flaunted his moral depravity by having relations in public with Kozbi, the Princess of Moav. Encouraging not just immorality but idol worship with the god of Moav.
Midrash Tanchuma sees a much bigger irony. One that reveals the hidden story of Pinchas and Zimri.
It starts with Ballak, king of Moav, who made a prostitute out of his daughter, Kozbi, by sending her and many other women into the Jewish camp. According to Midrash Tanchuma this was Bilaam’s plan B after he failed to curse the Jews. The objective was to involve the Jewish People in immorality and idol worship to provoke G-d’s anger. Which, in turn, would bring destruction to the Jewish People.
Zimri, the prince of Shimon outdoes everyone in his moral depravity. He publically flaunted his sexual exploits with the Princess of Moav in front of Moses and the people.
The Midrash ascribes great significance to the fact that it is the prince of the tribe of Shimon who engages in this public act of immorality. After all, there was a previous act of zealotry which involved two sons of Jacob – Shimon and Levi. They were morally outraged at the kidnapping and sexual assault against their sister Dina, so in retaliation, they killed out the the entire city of Shechem. (Genesis 34:25).
“On the third day, …Shimon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dina, took each his sword, came upon the city, securely, and slew all the males.”
By making this connection, the Midrash gives historical perspective to Zimri’s act of immorality. The prince of the tribe of Shimon betrayed the staunch moral values of Shimon, the son of Jacob. How was Zimri related to Shimon? According to Midrash Tanchuma – Zimri was none other than the son of Shimon.
Furthermore, according to Midrash Rabba, after Dina was violated she refused to leave the city until Shimon swore to her that he would marry her. So not only was Zimri the son of Shimon, his mother was Dina – who herself was a unwilling victim of moral depravity.
So in an act of divine poetic justice, Pinchas – an ancestor of Levi, (Shimon’s partner in wiping out Shechem and rescuing their sister) avenges the immorality of Zimri.
Did anything good did come out of the nation of Moav, a nation that tried so hard to bring about our downfall?
In one of the many divine twists related to the ancestry of King David, his great grandmother, Ruth, was not only a descendant of Moav, she was a descendant of Ballak, the king of Moav. (Nazir 23B)