Last week’s Torah portion ended with foreign women seducing Jewish men into forbidden sexual relations and idolatry. The saga continues this week with a shocking episode, where Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, slaughters a Jewish leader and a Midianite woman by skewering them with his spear mid-sin.
While radically taking the law into one’s hands in such a violent way may seem questionable and dangerous in modern times, God was clearly very pleased with Pinchas’ actions:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי. לָכֵן, אֱמֹר: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם. וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו, בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם–תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו, וַיְכַפֵּר, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I did not consume the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; 13 and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’ (Bamidbar 25:11-13)
God not only put an end to the plague that had already wiped out 24,000 people, He also blessed Pinchas and all his future descendants as the eternal spiritual leaders of Am Yisrael. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell a story that sheds some much needed light on this strange story:
There was once a pious Jew who had payot (sidelocks) down to his knees. A man approached the Chassid and asked him, “why do you have payot all the way down to your knees? There is no such obligation whatsoever” And the Chassid responded:
“If I have payot down to my knees, then my son will surely have payot down to his waist; and if my son has payot down to his waist, I can be certain that my grandson will have payot down to his shoulders; and if my grandson has payot down to his shoulders, my great-grandson will almost definitely have payot behind his ears; and if my great-grandson has payot behind his ears, then at least I know that my great-great-grandson will know about the concept of payot.”
When we are in the depths of our service of God, are we in it just for ourselves, just for the here and now? Or is each holy action we do – no matter how strange it may appear on the outside – a living prayer that our commitment to God and the Torah will live on for generations?
Like the Chassid with payot down to his knees, Pinchas stood up and did something that may have looked crazy, ridiculous, and down-right wrong to those around him, with the hope that three or four generations down the line, his offspring would know beyond any shadow of a doubt that there are certain acts that we simply do not do.
May God bless us all to be so deeply in tune with His will and our own responsibilities. May he teach us to trust our intuition and give us the wise and holy guts to know when we have been presented with a moment that calls us to action. For our own sake, His sake, and the sake of all future generations of Am Yisrael.