Ari Sacher

Spoiler Alert: Parashat Pinchas 5780

Last week, we discussed how the evil prophet, Balaam, advised the Midianites that in order to do some serious damage to the Jewish People, they should try seducing them with attractive women. The Midianites, following Balaam’s advice, send their women over to the Israelite camp and successfully seduce Jewish men into committing idolatry. Twenty-four thousand Israelites die in an ensuing plague. The plague is halted only after Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon the Priest (Kohen), avenges G-d’s honour by killing a high-ranking Jewish man and Midianite woman who are flagrantly consorting in full view.

In this week’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, G-d rewards Pinchas for his heroic act by giving him a [Bemidbar 25:12] “covenant of peace”. Then, almost as an afterthought, the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 25:14-15] “The name of the Israelite who was killed… with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, chieftain of the ancestral house of the Tribe of Shimon. The name of the Midianite woman who was killed was Cozbi daughter of Zur; he was the tribal head of an ancestral house in Midian.” Why doesn’t the Torah reveal their names as soon as they are introduced, as the action is unfolding? Instead, all we are told is [Bemidbar 25:6] “An [unidentified] Israelite man came and brought a [unidentified] Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moshe and of the whole Israelite community…” Only after everything is over but the shouting does the Torah remember to tell us that this “man” is actually a tribal leader and this “woman” is actually a Midianite princess.

This question is asked by Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, known as the “Or HaChaim HaKadosh”, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Or HaChaim proposes two answers. His first answer is that, as a rule, the Torah tries not to reveal the names of people who have committed sins unless there is a compelling reason to do so[1]. The Torah reveals the names of the amorous couple after Pinchas has been rewarded so as to highlight the magnitude of Pinchas’s actions: In order to avenge “G-d’s vengeance”, Pinchas murdered two very highly placed individuals. His reward was richly deserved. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the previous century, notes that Pinchas’s actions could have resulted in disaster – the Tribe of Shimon could have lynched Pinchas and nobody would have stopped them. Yet Pinchas did what needed to be done, without considering the consequences. The Torah mentions the names of Zimri and Cozbi not to besmirch them but to aggrandize Pinchas. In his second answer, the Or HaChaim takes a different path: When the Torah first refers to  Zimri and Cozbi merely as a “man” and a “woman”, it is before they have sinned. As long as they had not yet committed a crime, there was a chance that they would reconsider and do the right thing. Until that time, says the Or HaChaim, “it would not have been seemly for the Torah to reveal the names of prospective victims”. Only after they have sinned does the Torah reveal their names in order to publicize their actions. We can take this idea a few steps further. Imagine the scene: The people are rioting. The men are simultaneously committing adultery and idolatry. Moshe and Aaron have lost all control. All hope is lost. Suddenly, a chieftain of the Tribe of Shimon drags a Midianite princess smack dab into the middle of the commotion. The Tribe of Shimon has a long history of vengeance. When Shimon’s sister, Dinah, is kidnapped by Shechem, Shimon and his brother, Levi, rescue her, butchering an entire town in the process. When Shimon feels that his brother, Joseph, is leading his family down a path of spiritual destruction, Shimon convinces his other brothers to kill him. And so when Zimri shows up with a Midianite princess in tow, the entire nation is holding its breath. Had Zimri killed Cozbi, it would have been he, and not Pinchas, who was blessed with G-d’s Covenant of Peace. Instead, Zimri brazenly sleeps with Cozbi, leaving Pinchas to enter the stage to avenge G-d’s honour[2].

The explanations of the Or HaChaim lead to an observation. One of the greatest sources of difficulty in properly understanding the Torah is that the Torah is a sealed book. We read the same words year after year. A tongue-in-cheek story is told about a congregant who, during the Torah reading of Parashat Vayeshev, as Joseph heads naively towards his brothers who are plotting to kill him, stands up and shouts, “Don’t go there, you fool! You went there last year and they sold you into slavery!” The Torah does not need to begin each episode with the words “Spoiler Alert” because we already know what is going to happen at the end of the story: Abraham is not going to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah. Pharaoh will eventually bend to G-d’s will and evict his Jewish slaves from Egypt. The scouts will return from the Land of Israel with horror stories, the people will believe them, and they will spend the next forty years wandering in the desert. Zimri will not kill Cozbi and the Tribe of Shimon will not exact retribution from Pinchas.

We all too often neglect to realize that while we know what is going to happen, the people being written about do not. Nevertheless, there are things that even we do not know as we read and reread the words in the Torah. We see the input and we see the output but we do not see what is going on inside their minds. As an example, we turn to the story of the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. G-d has promised Abraham that he will one day become [Bereishit  12:2] “a great nation”. G-d has commanded him to evict his rebellious son, Yishmael, because [Bereishit 21:12] “it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you”. And then suddenly G-d commands Abraham to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice, essentially rendering His earlier promises null and void. Abraham wakes up the next morning and sets out to sacrifice his only son on an altar. The next thing the Torah tells is [Bereishit 22:4] “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar”. What happened during those three long days? Apparently, nothing of consequence. But what was going on inside Abraham’s mind during those three days? If I were Abraham, my mind would be churning. I would be asking myself if G-d had really been talking to me. Perhaps it was all a bad dream. What about those earlier promises? Why is He toying with me? Perhaps I should turn around and go home. On the third day, Abraham makes a choice: he does as G-d has commanded, not because he had to, but because he chooses to. All of this turmoil is invisible to the reader. While we typically see the Torah as a book of outcomes, the Torah is actually a book of choices.

Perhaps this observation can help us get our heads around a highly problematic concept in Judaism: the problem of G-d’s omniscience versus man’s freedom of choice. The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Teshuva [5:4-5] asks that if G-d has infinite knowledge and if everything takes place according to G-d’s will, how does man retain freedom of choice? If G-d knows what I am going to do, can I really do anything else? The Rambam gives a very enigmatic answer: “It is not within our intellectual power to know in what manner the Holy One, blessed is He! knows all the creatures and their actions, but we do know without a doubt that man’s behaviour is in the hand of man, and that the Holy One, blessed is He! neither draws him nor issues edicts against him to do as he does.” Many Rabbis take the Rambam to task for asking a difficult question and giving a mushy answer. But if we implement the logic of the Or HaChaim, we can propose a metaphor: G-d sees man the same way that we see the characters in the Torah. G-d needs no spoiler alerts. He knows that I will waste fifteen minutes that could have spent learning a page of Talmud by watching an old football game on YouTube. He knows that I will not eat that cheeseburger in the restaurant I just walked by. But while He knows the outcome, I made the choice. In my head, I felt the emotions pulling one direction and my intellect pulling another. The burger looked and smelled so enticing. I wanted it. Perhaps I should turn around and go back. But I continued walking – not because I had to but because I chose to, and the Torah is a book of choices.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] One example of such a “cover up” is the “stick gatherer (mekoshesh etzim)” from Bemidbar [15:32-36]. While the Torah never reveals his name, the Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [96b] tells how Rabbi Akiva reveals his name and is chastised for it – if the Torah “covered it up”, so should you.

[2] Rabbi YY Rubenstein contrasts Shimon with his brother Levi. Both were passionate. Both killed the town of Shechem. Both wanted to kill Joseph. And yet only one of them burned with a passion for G-d.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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