Tora Thoughts: Parashat Pinchas 5778
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Never Rush to Reward Extremism
Parashat Pinchas begins with God recognizing Pinchas’ actions by offering him a pact of peace or friendship. Pinchas was the grandson of Aaron. The Torah says,
Phinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal (Numbers 25:11)
If you read this parasha without knowing what had happened right before, you will not be able to understand what Pinchas did and why he was rewarded. You could only understand that Pinchas acted with zeal and that he turned God’s anger away from the Children of Israel. However, what did happen?
The missing story is of course at the end of the previous parasha, Balak. There we are told that the Children of Israel (or at least some of them) were participating in an idolatry cult in honor of the Moabite god of Baal-peor. They had also participated in sexual immorality. God became angry with the Israelites and, as a consequence, a deadly plague attacked them. When the situation seemed to be going out of control, Pinchas took a spear and killed a Moabite woman and an Israelite man who were publicly and immorally profaning God’s name. Pinchas’ action seemed to put an end to the situation and the plague.
My question for this “Torah Thought” is, why is this story split in two parashot? The text that appears at the beginning of this week’s parasha (Pinchas) is clearly the continuation of the text at the end of last week’s parasha (Balak). Furthermore, why did the sages choose to end last week’s parasha on such a negative note, by telling us about the numerous deaths the plague had caused? Usually every parasha ends with a positive tone! Why was Pinchas’ story split in two parts?
There is a very interesting answer to this question that is based on the fact that Pinchas acted in an extreme way. Pinchas took justice into his own hands, showing zeal and fanaticism. He didn’t consult Moses, the other priests, or the elders about what he intended to do (kill the Moabite woman and the Israelite man). He skipped the authorities of his time, those who were supposed to judge the case and those who were supposed to enforce it. That is why Pinchas’ behavior is judged with extreme caution and suspicion by the sages. And even those who approve his act explain that this was a unique decision necessary at Pincha’s time, but it should not be imitated.
As part of this trend among the sages, Rabbi Moses of Coucy (who lived in the thirteenth century in northern France and is well-known as the author of one of the earliest codifications of Jewish law, the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol), gives an answer to our question regarding why Pinchas’ story is split in two parashot. Rabbi Moses says that this fact teaches us that we should take enough time and caution before rewarding a man who acts with zeal. Extremism and fanaticism should never be the first choice. They should be discouraged and avoided. Even in extreme situations, when someone acting with zeal and fanaticism seems to have saved the day, we should never rush to recognize that person’s acts. We should be extremely cautious and judge the case rigorously before accepting an act of extremism.
We learn this lesson from the fact that Pinchas’ story is split in two parts. At the end of last week’s parasha we are told what happened. Only after a long break we are told what God’s opinion was about Pinchas’ behavior. There was a need for reflection and proper judgment before the approval of Pinchas’ conduct.
Under extreme conditions, extreme acts may happen among human beings. Sometimes they are necessary, sometimes unavoidable. In any case, according to the sages, should we rush to approve and acclaim the zealot’s acts? We should always take enough time to reflect and judge impartially and objectively because many times, the goal does not justify the means.