Ari Sacher
Ari Sacher

‘The Plague’ Parashat Pinchas 5781

At the end of the previous portion, Parashat Balak, the Moabites send young women to Ba’al Pe’or to seduce Jewish men with the goal of converting them to paganism. They are extremely successful. G-d is angered and a deadly plague breaks out. The plague does not abate until Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron the Kohen, kills Zimri the son of Salu, the Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, who is in the process of fornicating with a Moabite princess. Parashat Pinchas begins with G-d lauding Pinchas for his actions [Bemidbar 25:11]: “Pinchas… 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”. All too often, we skim over verses that we should be reading more carefully. This is one of those verses. Notice what G-d is saying: Had Pinchas not committed his act of zealotry, then G-d would have completely wiped out the entire Jewish People. Whatever for? A basic tenet of Judaism is that a person is punished for his sins and rewarded for his good deeds. How could G-d destroy an entire nation because of the sins of the few? This very question was asked by Moshe at Korach’s rebellion [Bemidbar 16:22]: “When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”

My wife, Tova, has an interesting angle to this question. She suggests that every time in the Torah that G-d threatens to destroy the entire Jewish People[1], it is not because of the behaviour of individuals, but, rather, because their individual behaviour has revealed a tragic flaw in the national persona[2]. Which flaw was revealed in the episode Ba’al Pe’or? In his monumental “Thinking fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of human thought. “System 1” is fast, instinctive and passionate while “System 2” is slow, deliberate and logical. I suggest that at Ba’al Pe’or, the Jewish People nearly surrendered to System 1. Before we continue, some background is necessary. Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein, formerly of Manchester, England, and currently living in the U.S., notes that the Tribes of Levi and Shimon had an abundance of passion. Indeed, they had an overabundance of passion. Their raw passion caused them to kill Shechem and his entire town after Shechem had raped their sister, Dinah. Indeed, Yaakov, their father, tells them on his deathbed [Bereishit 49:5] “Shimon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence their kinship”. While both Shimon and Levi are passionate, their actions at the egel enable us to differentiate between the two. When Moshe sees the egel, he shouts out [Shemot 32:26] “Whoever is on G-d’s side, let him come to me!” Immediately, “the entire Tribe of Levi gathered around him”. When Moshe screams for help, the Tribe of Levi cannot run fast enough. Burning with passion, they avenge the trampled honour of G-d. While Levi cannot fathom forsaking Moshe with a golden calf, Shimon is right in his element when the people become agitated. He does not quell the muttering – he stirs it up [Shemot 32:6]: “The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry”. The behaviour of the two tribes at the egel action gives us new perspective: Levi killed Shechem because Shechem had raped the daughter of G-d’s emissary, Jacob. Shimon, on the other hand, was just a hot-head. He did not kill – he murdered in cold blood. Levi and Shimon part ways forever at Ba’al Pe’or, when Pinchas, a descendant of Levi, kills Zimri, a descendant of Shimon. Zimri’s brazen defiance nearly caused the destruction of the Jewish People. Pinchas’s passion saved the day.

Let’s begin tying things together. Rabbi Zalman Szorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the previous century, makes a fascinating observation. The Torah tells us [Bemidbar 25:9] that 24,000 people were killed in the plague at Ba’al Pe’or. Noting that the plague abated immediately after Pinchas killed Zimri, we must conclude that Zimri committed his act of sexual defiance only after 24,000 people had already died. What was Zimri trying to prove? Didn’t he see with his own eyes that he was doomed? I would like to answer this question by offering a completely new interpretation of what the “plague” actually was. Rabbi Yehuda Léon Ashkenazi , better known as Manitou, who revitalized French Jewry after World War II, proposes an innovative explanation of an argument that our forefather, Abraham, had with his nephew, Lot. The Torah tells us [Bereishit 13:7] “There was quarrelling (riv) between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle.” When Abraham hears what is going on, he approaches Lot and tells him [Bereishit 13:8] “Let there be no quarrel (meriva)[3] between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen”. Manitou differentiates between “riv” and “meriva”, explaining that “riv” is a simple disagreement while “meriva” is a deep rift in Weltanschauung. While their shepherds were fighting about hay, Abraham and Lot were wrestling about the future of the Jewish People. The structure of the two words gives credence to this theorem: “riv” is in the simple (po’al) form while “meriva” is in the causative (hiph’il), suggesting that it is a deeper form of quarrel. This explanation can help explain why the plague that occurred at Ba’al Pe’or is called a “magefa”, in the causative form, while plague that occurred at Korach’s rebellion is called [Bemidbar 17:11] a “negef[4], in the passive (niph’al) form: A “negef” is a passive plague, caused by external forces, like a half-baked pangolin or a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A “magefa”, on the other hand, is caused directly by internal forces. I suggest that what transpired at Ba’al Pe’or was nothing less than a civil war. The Moabite women had been sent to seed dissent. The dissent broke down into chaos and Jews began killing Jews, each passionately convinced that he was saving the Jewish People from destruction. Zimri, as Prince of the Tribe of Shimon, a tribe who served as an archetype for instinctive emotion, knew exactly what he was doing. He was not disregarding the plague – he was part of the plague.

When Pinchas stands up and kills Zimri, he understands that he is taking a tremendous risk. He understands that there will be retribution. The Tribe of Shimon would not think twice about avenging the death of their leader. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [82b] states this unequivocally: “The tribes spoke disparagingly of [Pinchas], saying, ‘Have you seen this grandson of [Jethro][5] the father of whose mother used to fatten calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and he has dared to slay a prince of one of Israel’s tribes!’” And yet, the Tribe of Shimon stands down. Pinchas had shocked them into the recognition that a nation that lived by passion would die by passion. Pinchas had stopped the plague because the Tribe of Shimon had stopped the killing.

Jewish history repeated itself, as it so often does, in the summer of 2005. The Israeli Government had decided to uproot all of the Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Nearly ten thousand Jews would be forcefully removed from their homes. To many Israelis, this was an existential crisis of faith. One month before the expulsion, tens of thousands of demonstrators marched on Gaza. The night before they meant to crash through the Army checkpoints, in a town called Kfar Maimon, they, too, understood the potential ramifications of their actions and they, too, stood down. Rabbi Dudi Dudkovich, one of their leaders, told his fellow demonstrators, “We cannot defeat our own country”. They learned from their ancestor, Pinchas, placing the welfare of the nation before their own, personal, welfare, and placing G-d’s passion before their own passion. By making this great sacrifice, they, too, contributed to the rectification of the sin at Ba’al Pe’or. They transformed the debris of the towns destroyed in Gaza into the first bricks of the Third Temple.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, Iris bat Chana, and Yosef Binyamin ben Rochel Leah.

[1] This happens four times: at the Golden Calf (egel), when the spies return with their evil report, at Korach’s rebellion, and at Ba’al Pe’or.

[2] For example, while only 3,000 people worshipped the egel, the episode revealed a fatal flaw in their understanding of how G-d manages the world.

[3] The JTS translation of the Torah that appears on Sefaria translates “riv” as “quarreling” and “meriva” as strife.

[4] The plague at Korach’s rebellion is first introduced as a “negef” but is later called a “magefa”. This fact requires further investigation.

[5] See Shemot 6:25 that Eleazar, his father, had married a daughter of Putiel who is identified with Jethro.

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 2001 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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