By Braha Bender
Sometimes you’ve got to be a hero. It isn’t easy. Heroes aren’t always popular. In fact, being a hero usually means that you have enemies. You’re the exception to the rule, the fire-starter, the upstart whom some people really admire but other people wish would just shut up and get out of the way.
But heroes change history. Heroes go in and grab a situation by the horns. They turn it around. They don’t allow rough circumstances to make them passive. And real heroes do so with wisdom.
Pinchas, for the most part, is a very misunderstood hero. As the account goes, Zimri ben Salu was a tribal leader who decided to haul a Midianite prostitute directly into the center of the Jewish encampment and go to town right in front of Moshe (Moses). You might say that it wasn’t entirely his fault. After all, after his failed attempt to curse the Jewish People, Balaam of Moab sent a bevy of harlots to try to cause the Jewish people to sin and lose their special divinely protected status.
Unfortunately, his plan went quite well. Zimri represented the most rash expression of the degradation, but almost everyone was doing it. Not One to sit tight while His children are destroying themselves, the Almighty had sent a plague of illness in an effort to wake up the Jewish People to the destructive nature of what they were doing, but so far the message had not seemed to register.
Twenty-four thousand people had already died in the plague and nobody even seemed to care. At most, those who opposed what was going on sat in the entrance to the ohel moed (Tent of Meeting) crying, but in this case, crying was not going to cut it.
You see, people don’t like to be heroes. It’s hard. It’s unpopular. It takes effort. Pinchas was the only one with the guts to get up, see what was going on, and do something about it. He didn’t act thoughtlessly. Before lifting his spear, Pinchas ran to ask a quick shaila to his rebbe. In non-Yeshivish parlance, that means that he stopped by Moshe’s tent to make sure that what he was about to do was permitted by Jewish law.
But the moment he got the okay, Pinchas didn’t hesitate. He grabbed his spear, “followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the Children of Israel.” (Numbers-Bamidbar 25:8)
History remembers Pinchas as a zealot, not a very popular word. Not a word usually used as a compliment. But Pinchas wasn’t a mindless fanatic. Pinchas was an activist and a healer. Lives were saved thanks to his heroism. But more than just physical lives, Pinchas drove home (excuse the pun) a fundamental principle that would play out in Jewish history time and again. It also plays out in our own lives.
Certain types of behaviors are called a chilul Hashem. Literally translated, this means a desecration of the name of God. In practical terms, a chilul Hashem takes place when any Jew or group of Jews project the concept that Torah is not important. When a Jew is seen stealing, lying, gossiping, or otherwise behaving against Torah law, those who see him are given the message that Torah, and by extension God, are not important. They might not even exist.
The word chilul is related to the word chalal, empty space. In places where the light, joy, and holiness of God and Torah ought to fill up and spill over, acts of chilul Hashem create an aching lack, a screaming darkness, a dizzying void.
Chilul Hashem is a very serious spiritual infraction for obvious reasons. Nature abhors a vacuum. Spiritual emptiness is not a pareve, passive state. Spiritual emptiness is an active cancer. It sucks in and destroys what’s good. It empties lives, empties relationships, empties identities. The ultimate poverty is spiritual poverty. Entire societies are left with nothing when the Jews fail to shine the light of meaning and content in the world.
Zimri ben Salu wasn’t just sinning against God, he was sinning against the entire world. He was deafening the Jewish People to the sweet, delicate music of their souls, cutting the veins through which their blood flowed, haphazardly ravaging the very essence and purpose of our existence. He had no shame and was sinning in the very midst of the camp. Counteracting such a grave disgrace required more than prayer, even prayer uttered in tears of sincerity. Counteracting such a chilul Hashem required a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, an influx of such pure, powerful spiritual light that the raw black space would become filled, become abundant, become a place of wild rushing epiphany.
Counteracting such a chilul Hashem required a Pinchas.
Sometimes the ugliest moments of our lives can become the most beautiful. The parts of our lives that are most degraded and broken can become the very places where our deepest growth begins. When the most blatant sinner turns himself around, he is the greatest role model of all, even more so than somebody who was always righteous to begin with. Nobody said this was easy, but Rabbi Leib Kelemen addresses challenges succinctly: “’It’s hard’ means ‘It’s possible’.”
Pinchas took a moment of profound spiritual degradation and turned it into a national memory of righteousness and heroism against all odds. We can do the same. Instead of turning away from the dark places and ignoring our sins out of shame, choosing apathy and escapism, instead we can step into the fray, grab a spear, and become a hero. We can attack our yetzer hara with the same zealotry that drove Pinchas. And we can stop the plague. We can change our lives. We can turn everything around.
Because sometimes you’ve just got to be a hero.