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Violence and the Danger Zone
The intentions of Pinchas were holy because of the Divine response, both in stopping the deadly plague, and his subsequent blessing.

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Violence and the Danger Zone

Adapted from Rabbi Moshe Grylak’s “Parasha U’Likcha”

Translated and adapted by Braha Bender


History’s first recorded assassination is depicted in a Torah section named after Pinchas (Pineas), the grandson of Aharon (Aaron) the Kohen Gadol (high priest), and the perpetrator of the murder. The scene opens in the parasha (Torah portion) with a blessing extended to Pinchas for his act of fanaticism. The blessing details a “covenant of peace” – an interesting response, to say the least.

“Pinchas… turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel… Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace…eternal priesthood, because… he atoned for the Children of Israel” (Numbers 25:11-13).

The murderer isn’t even chastised! Instead, the Creator remunerates a capital offense with blessing, and a blessing of peace no less. Is something wrong with this picture?

Well, first for a little background…

Last week we saw the evil prophet Balaam ascend to the crest of a mountain overlooking the camp of Israel, open his mouth to cast terrible curses upon the holy nation, and fall flat on his face as the Almighty replaces his words of curse with beautiful words of blessing.

This week, the story continues as Balaam heads home shamed and disappointed after his failed attempts to curse the Jews. King Balak of Moab, who had hired Balaam to “take care of the Jewish problem” with his curses, is awaiting the prophet with arms crossed and a big frown on his face. In desperation to please his employer and receive payment, Balaam pulls out his last card….

“Their G-d hates lewdness,” says Balaam shrewdly (Sanhedrin 106). Explaining that the Almighty will protect His nation only as long as they maintain His moral standards, Balaam hatches a nefarious plan. “Let’s seduce them into immoral behavior – my curses are sure to get ‘em then,” suggests Balaam with a sly snicker.

Never ones to turn down an opportunity for anti-Semitism, the Moabite and Median nations volunteer their daughters. The plan is simple: have the girls seduce a number of Jewish men, and then lure them into serving their idol, Baal Pe’or.

The frightening thing is how quickly their plan succeeds. Sliding down from their heightened spiritual standing takes the Jewish People no more than (number) days flat.

Zimri, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, takes the incident even farther by giving it ideological overtones. Zimri and his girlfriend have no shame before anyone, the public or the leadership. They’re proud of what they’re doing!

And the thundering of lust silences insight. No warning breaks through the fervid thrills of the moment. Moshe (Moses) and Aharon stand at a loss as they watch their nation spin out of control, temptations rising out of proportion, hurling the camp into a rabid chaos of licentiousness. Many follow Zimri’s cue as his attempt at justification draw more and more into the seductive clutches of the evil-intentioned prostitutes, and from there into ritual worship of Pe’or. The leaders feel helpless to stop the fervor. Gaining terrifying velocity in its downward spiral, the cycle of licentiousness is suddenly paused with plague breaking out amidst the camp, threatening mass illness and death as the perpetrators are served justice. Moshe and Aharon stand before the Tent of Meeting and cry, the only recourse left for stopping the plague and saving their beloved people.

Suddenly, in the midst of the flagrant immorality, the groans of the sick and dying, the weeping of Moshe and Aharon, and all the rest of the general chaos striding through the camp of Israel with iron boots, a single man named Pinchas comes forward to stop the insanity. This was no time for patient negotiations and gradual processes. Judaism advocates gentle, wholesome growth almost all of the time, but the rare moment does occasionally arise when nothing but shock therapy will do. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Pinchas, son of the most gentle, sensitive person in the entire nation, grabs a spear, stalks into the tent where Zimri and his Midianite woman are engaged with each other, and thrusts the spear directly through the center of the act.

Results are immediate: “The plague was halted from the Children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand” (Numbers 25:8-9). The nation is stunned at the sudden, ruthless assassination, and the stunned silence in the wake of the murder forces the nation to finally look around and see what they have become. The truth smacks them hard in the face: Pinchas did the right thing; the craziness has to end.

What legitimized Pinchas’s act? Why is he blessed for carrying out the assassination, and not punished?

Pinchas’s indignation was for nothing but the Almighty’s shame. He had nothing vested in this, no personal score to settle with Zimri – only indignation that the nation of Hashem could be so basely disgraced.

According to the Midrash, before grabbing a spear, Pinchas headed over to present Moshe with the case. Hadn’t they learned that when a Jewish man takes a gentile woman, “a zealous one may slay him” (Sanhedrin 81b)? Recognizing the pure source of Pinchas’s concern, Moshe considered the case gravely, and eventually gave him the go-ahead.

So we see that Pinchas did not behave thoughtlessly, but rather was acting out of a well-thought-out, studied, carefully considered plan of action that he had discussed with his rabbi beforehand. What made it possible for him to go through with this unusual Jewish law were his entirely pure intentions. Murder can not be justified by personal inclination, and in this case, his personal inclination had nothing to do with it.

But what does this mean for us? If we encounter a “Pinchas situation”, should we also take a drastic stand? How can we be sure that an act of fanaticism is not ego-based, that the motivation is not a need to be in the middle of the action, or to be made into a hero?

The truth is that this is one situation where we cannot make the judgment call. In this case we know that Pinchas’s intentions were holy because of the Divine response, both in stopping the deadly plague, and in Pinchas’s subsequent blessing. Only the Almighty can testify about a human being’s range of intentions. Sometimes not even we are conscious of the full medley motivating us within. The Almighty sees all of our intentions, both conscious and subconscious. And He testified to Pinchas’s innocence and valor.

For us any fanaticism carries a danger. Even when all the reasons and intentions are laudable, violence is violence. And violence breeds more violence. Pinchas’s blessing is a warning: a covenant of peace.

Although specific circumstances necessitated the bloodshed to put an end to the licentious idolatry that was causing the plague, and even though Moshe had given Pinchas the go-ahead to commit this drastic act and save the nation, nonetheless Pinchas was not free of the side effects of violence. Crime, aggression, and hatred naturally cycle into each other unless they are stopped.

People are malleable. While “the ancestor of every action is a thought” (Emerson) and we do not act without a thought prodding us to do so, our actions themselves have a profound, if subtle effect on our character. There is power to action. The movement of the fifteen muscles that create a smile can actually raise your mood; doing kindness for someone breeds love for them and makes you a kinder person. As Scottish author Samuel Smiles expressed it, “Sow a thought, and you reap an act; Sow an act, and you reap a habit; Sow a habit, and you reap a character; Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.”

“Just this once” is a dangerous justification. Although many habits do get nipped in the bud, an action, since you invest your own life energy into it, has an effect on your character; it makes an imprint on your soul.

The Almighty’s gift to Pinchas was to protect him from the effects of his violence. The “covenant of peace” offered Pinchas renewed equanimity, and returned his being to an innate balance including ethical and personal peace. His blessing carried a double entendre: what Pinchas did was right, and deserving of blessing, but the blessing itself was a restoration of the ability to be a compassionate promoter of peace despite his one-time breech into violence. 

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