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Parshat Pinchas – Zeal Good or Evil

Numbers 19:1-22:1 2 July till 8 July 2023

לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃

“Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship.” (Numbers 19:2)

Hashem gives his pact of friendship to Pinchas. Pinchas – see verse 11 – is the grandson of Aaron, belonging to the tribe of Levi. He was also the grandson of Jitro[1]. Both Aaron – remember the golden calf (Exodus 32) – and Jitro participated in false worship. Jitro recognizes (Numbers 25:11) that only the G-d of Israel is the only true G-d, that He is greater than all gods of the nations. Jitro had full knowledge of every idol in the world because there was no idol unworshipped by him [2].

We can say that the people in the camp found Pinchas’ origins dubious in this regard. Who was he that he could comment on a prince/ nasi of Israel. What gave him the right to even kill this prince, Zimri.

Zimri ben Salu was the prince/ nasi of the tribe of Shimon. He considered himself greater than Moses. Since he was from the tribe of Shimon – the second son of Jacob, while Moses was “only” from the third son of Jacob.

He, and other men of Israel entered relationships with the women from Midian. These women enticed the men to worship Ba’al Peor. It was for this reason that G-d had instructed Moses that all who had turned to this idolatry deserved the death penalty (Numbers 25:4).

Why should Moses have to decide which G-d to worship. Why could he not decide that it was right to worship Ba’al Peor and have relationships with the woman of Midian, which was forbidden to the people by G-d.

It was a direct attack on the worship of G-d and His Kingship, and it was an attack on Moses. Why could Moses forbid him, Zimri, and the other men of the people to take wives from Midian, when Moses’ own wife was from Midian (Exodus 2: 16, 21).

He brought the Midianite woman to his brethren, the members of his tribe, who were assembled before the eyes of Moses, showing them that he was doing something on their behalf. He confronted Moses before the eyes of the entire congregation of the Israelites, asking him, “Is this Midianite woman forbidden or permissible to marry? If you say she – a Midian woman – is forbidden, then by what right did you marry Zipporah, who is also a Midianite?”[3]

In doing so, he forgot that Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, had expelled all idols from her father’s house[4] and worshipped the G-d of Moses, Israel, instead of bringing in idols as these women had done with Ba’al Peor. And Moses married Zipporah before the Torah was given to nation of Israel on Mount Sinai, and thus before marriage between Jews and non-Jews was forbidden.

These men thus violated two prohibitions. The prohibition against worshipping foreign gods (idols) and the prohibition against sexual relations with non-Jewish women.

G-d was truly angry with the people who started worshipping Ba’al Peor and a huge plague came among the people. It was only after Pinchas killed Zimri that the plague ceased.

There are different opinions whether Pinchas acted on a whim or whether he thought it through and discussed with Moses. Either way Pinchas acted in zeal, he did what he needed to do, namely killing Zimri, to save Israel from the plague from G-d. Zeal was in his genes we can say, it was part of his character. He came from the tribe of Levi who had been overzealous in their punishment to the men of Shechem after acting through the forbidden relationship – the rape of his sister Dinah. But wait, Zimri was from the tribe of Shimon. He was the brother who, along with Levi, took revenge on their sister Dinah.

So, both were zealous, Pinchas and Zimri. It shows an important lesson, namely that character traits can always be used for a good or a bad action.

That Pinchas used it for good is clear because G-d gives him His friendship and rewards him.

The first reward was the bris kehunah, an opportunity to join the rest of his family in performing the service in the Miskhan and the second reward was the bris shalom.

It would take us too far to go into detail on both rewards in this blog. Let us say that the final reward was that peace came between G-d and the people through Pinchas because the punishment ceased[5].

Zeal we can thus use for good or evil. How can we discern in ourselves whether we are using it for good or evil.

Pinchas did not care that those around him could shame him with his past. A past linked to grandfathers who had been associated with the sin of the golden calf and with idolatry.

The sages said Zimri had not yet committed the crime and so had not yet earned the death penalty. This made Pinchas, according to the law, a “pursuer” and Zimri had been allowed to kill Pinchas in self-defence.[6] Pinchas thus put his life on the line to bring justice.

There is total nullification of one’s own ego for the sake of G-d’s will. 

So, when we act out of zeal, it is important to look at our motives. Are we really doing it just for G-d, or do honor, money, family, friends, wrong values, and norms play an underlying – hidden – role.

As I was writing this, I remembered an event from last week. Without going into details, I heard someone in the family say this week that he wanted to perform a certain religious act. Normally, I would have reacted fully to that right away and given that person my unvarnished opinion for a moment as to why that person should not do that etc. But then I thought, who am I to impose my opinion on that person. Is it an act that would irritate G-d or is it an act that irritates me. When I realized that I had no clear-cut answer to that, I decided to keep my mouth shut for the most part.

In short: we should learn to always examine our deeper motives before we want to act in zeal for G-d.

By Angelique Sijbolts


[1] Sotah 43a-3
[2] Rashi on Exodus 18:11:2
[3] Interpolated Translation for Parshah Balak
[4] Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 39:6.
[5] The Journey to Your Ultimate Self by Rabbi Shmuel Reichman p. 449-455
[6]  Idem p. 451

See also: Pinchas – Shimon and Levi

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