Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

Midrash Tanchuma Pinchas: The decline and fall of moral outrage

Back in Parshat Vayishlach, two brothers acted as one when confronted with a moral outrage against their sister. We are told that all the brothers were angered by the kidnapping and sexual assault against Dina: 

וַיִּ֥חַר לָהֶ֖ם מְאֹ֑ד כִּֽי־נְבָלָ֞ה עָשָׂ֣ה בְיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לִשְׁכַּב֙ אֶת־בַּֽת־יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְכֵ֖ן לֹ֥א יֵעָשֶֽׂה  

“And (the brothers) were very angry because of the desecration to the Israelites that a daughter of Yaakov was sexually assaulted – such an act cannot be tolerated” (Bereshis 24:7)

However only Shimon and Levy carried out the plot to rescue Dina and kill out the men of Shechem. 

When confronted by their father Yaakov, they defended their actions in the most graphic terms:

הַכְזוֹנָ֕ה יַעֲשֶׂ֖ה אֶת־אֲחוֹתֵֽנוּ׃

“Shall our sister be forced to be like a prostitute?”  (Bereishis 34:31)

So feared was the combination of Shimon and Levi that Yoseph jailed Shimon to keep them apart.

Fast forward to our parsha where the same two brothers are involved in another moral outrage. Once again the incident involved prostitution. However, this time Shimon and Levi are at the opposite sides of the spear. 

Of course they are no longer 2 brothers out of 12.  Zimri is the prince of the tribe of Shimon. The Midrash says that the princess of Midyan wanted to prostitute herself with Moshe. Zimri insisted that he was just as important and publically flaunted his immoral act. 

At the end, Zimri, the prince of Shimon, is killed by Pinchas from the tribe of Levi.

The Midrash connects the story of Shechem and our Parsha with a powerful phrase: 

וזה פרץ גדר שגדר אביו

“And this one (Shimon) broke the moral boundary that his own father established.”  

This same phrase, פרץ גדר, was used with another moral boundary that was broken which had far reaching consequences for all mankind. The snake in the Garden was the first to employ the art of slander. He told Chava that God did not want them to eat from the Tree of Life because God was jealous of the fact that eating from the tree would transform them into gods. The snake’s deceit broke a moral boundary which brought banishment from Gan Eden and mortality to the world.

Zimri – a turncoat against the lesson of his parents 

How closely was Zimri related to Shimon? According to Rashi, Shimon was Zimri’s father. And his mother was none other than Dina (Rashi: Genesis 46:10). It seems that after her trauma in Shechem, Dina did not want to rejoin the family until Shimon agreed to marry her. They had one child together – Zimri. Just one generation later Zimri takes up with a Midyanite princess who was prostituted by her own father, king Ballak. All this on the advice of Billam who was seeking the downfall of the Jewish People.

Misplaced moral outrage

The terrible irony of Levi’s ancestor killing Shimon’s ancestor was lost on the crowd. Instead, the angry mob of Jews wanted to kill Pinchas. Their battle cry was indeed about genealogy, but they focussed on minutia and missed the big picture:  

ראיתם בן פוטי זה, שפיטם אבי אמו עגלים לעבודת כוכבים, הרג נשיא שבט מישראל

“This man, whose mother’s father fattened calves for star worship, has killed a tribal prince of Israel! (Numbers. 25:11)

Pinchas, as the Torah states, was the son of Eliezer, the high priest. Grandson of Aaron the first High Priest. But the Jews focussed on his mother’s lineage. Pinchas had a maternal grandparent from Yitro. As we know, Yitro started out as an idol worshiper. According to the Midrash, Yitro ultimately rejected idolatry even before he met Moshe. Yet the mob focussed on Pinchas’s connection to Yitro, conveniently ignoring that he was the grandson of the High Priest. Not to mention the fact that Pinchas brought peace between God and the Jewish People and stopped a plague that had already taken the lives of 24,000 Jews. A large number of those were from the tribe of Shimon.

We live in an age when moral outrage often seems to be misplaced. Perhaps this Parsha serves as a litmus test for defining legitimate moral outrage. Are you fighting for issues that will strengthen society or bring about it’s moral decay? The murder of a prince seemed like a violent struggle for power, an affront to the tribe of Shimon. 

Yet the Torah sees is a noble act of peace. 

It was precisely this act of Pinchas upon which Midrash Tanchuma declares:

גָּדוֹל הַשָּׁלוֹם שֶׁנָּתַן, שֶׁאֵין הָעוֹלָם מִתְנַהֵג אֶלָּא עַל פִּי הַשָּׁלוֹם. וְהַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ שָׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: דְּרָכֶיהָ דַּרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם

“Great is peace that God bestowed because the world can only be sustained with peace. And the Torah is all about peace as it says: Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths, peaceful.” (Proverbs 3:11)

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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