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Pinchas needed God’s ‘covenant of peace’

Indignation and passion won the zealot his day, but God makes it clear, generations later, that even righteous hot-headedness is not ideal (Pinchas)
'Phinehas slaying Zimri and Kozbi the Midianite,' between 1570 and 1603, by Joos van Winghe. (Wikipedia)
'Phinehas slaying Zimri and Kozbi the Midianite,' between 1570 and 1603, by Joos van Winghe. (Wikipedia)

We likely don’t need classical sources to tell us this, but a biblical account (in I Kings) and a rabbinic discussion paint a complicated picture of passion. It is after all, a potent force, and one that — even in the hands of such heroes as Pinchas and Elijah — is not guaranteed to achieve its desires.

In the opening verses of Parashat Pinchas, God declares, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of peace’” (Numbers 25:11-12).

The beginning of the parasha continues the narrative of calamitous events at the end of last week’s parasha, in which Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly engaged in sexual relations with Kozbi, the Midianite priestess-prostitute. God vents His wrath via a plague; people are dying by the hundreds. Moses and the elders are paralyzed both by horror and, according to the Bamidbar Rabbah (20:25), by judicial deliberation. It is then that, in the absence of action by the higher-ups, Pinchas picks up a spear and impales both Zimri and Kozbi on it, killing them both, and apparently assuaging God’s concerns, for the plague stops.

Passion is powerful. Acts of passion are recounted in mythology, literature, art, poetry, music, and history, and in religious texts of every faith. Passion can spur the human heart and soul to acts of supreme courage, leadership, love, and almost-unimaginable fortitude and resilience. It can also foment division and despair, and ultimately bring about destruction and devastation. To beget beauty and good, therefore, passion must be handled with great care and guided by pristine integrity.

God clearly approves of Pinchas’ decision and rewards him with a “covenant of peace,” and the assurance that all future high priests would come from his lineage. Thus, Pinchas the Passionate (as it were) emerges as a hero who avenged God’s honor and saved his people.

But is he to be emulated? That is not clear.

The sages, in both the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 81-82) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Sanhedrin 27) express ambivalence about Pinchas’ actions, even though he acted within the letter of the law. They observe that if Zimri had ceased his behavior on his own and Pinchas had gone on to kill him anyway, then the zealot would have been liable. Moreover, if, during such a scenario, Zimri had turned around and killed Pinchas instead, Zimri would not have been considered guilty of murder – he would have been defending himself against a rodef, a pursuer with intent to kill.

Indeed, while Jewish law is clearly on Pinchas’ side — a zealot is permitted to kill under the Zimri-Kozbi circumstances — Rabbi Yochanan adds: “ein morim ken” — we do not teach this law. By the time these talmudic discussions were recorded, the Jews had experienced the catastrophic outcomes of zealotry and passion: the destruction of the Second Temple and the crushing defeat of the Bar Kochba revolt. The sages’ ambivalence around passion may well be the product of witnessing its consequences.

The haftara for this week’s parasha recounts the tale of another renowned zealot, Elijah. Elijah harnessed God’s power, and literally brought down fire from the heavens, to demonstrate God’s omnipotence. His actions led to national repentance. Yet Elijah saw himself as a failure, for not everyone followed God’s word, neither before, nor even after the miraculous fire. All-or-nothing thinking is a hallmark of zealotry: if only some people were doing the right thing, it was as if no one at all was – a failed effort as far as Elijah himself was concerned.

Yet God sends Elijah to the desert, to the Mountain of God. There, the prophet experiences a rock-shattering wind, an earthquake, and a firestorm, but he does not hear the voice of God. Rather, Elijah’s encounter with the Divine at this point is via a “still, small voice” (I Kings 19:12). The prophet’s response? He hides his face and asserts — as he did before God’s revelation — that he is a zealot and is alone among the believers. In response, God fundamentally moves on. He tells the zealot to appoint his apprentice Elisha as the next prophet instead. In effect, Elijah is fired.

Perhaps God gave Pinchas the covenant of peace for the same reason that He revealed Himself to Elijah in the still, small voice. Perhaps God wanted to teach us that, for all that passion is a force to be reckoned with, it is gentleness and peacefulness that have the power to reach across divides, to sustain, and ultimately, to heal.

About the Author
Leah Herzog is a life-long educator, writer, counselor and speaker. She holds Masters Degrees in Education Psychology and Educational Leadership. Leah is passionately committed to building relationships and meaningful living through Torah-writ-large. She made aliya with her husband in 2019, and is the unabashedly proud mother of two adult children. Leah and her husband, Rabbi Avi Herzog, reside in Givat Zev.
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