Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Pinchas


Pinchas ben Elozar ben Aharon HaKohen (25:11)

At the end of last week’s parsha, the Jewish people began to sin with the non-Jewish Midianites. Even Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, was caught up in transgressing. Anxious to stem the spread of the sin, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas publicly killed Zimri. Rashi writes that the Jewish people began to embarrass Pinchas. They questioned how a person whose maternal grandfather (Yisro) was an idolater could murder the leader of a tribe. Therefore, the Torah specifically emphasizes Pinchas’s paternal descent from Aharon.

The logic behind the Jews’ argument and Hashem’s response is difficult to grasp. If they knew the law that permitted Pinchas’s actions, why did they insult him? If they were unfamiliar with the law and viewed him as a cold-blooded murderer, of what benefit was it to point out his paternal lineage? In what way did it change the reality that one of his grandfathers served as a priest for idol-worship and that in their minds, he had killed the leader of a tribe without justification?

Rav Meir Shapiro explains that the value of a mitzvah is measured by the degree to which its performance runs counter to a person’s natural inclinations and therefore represents a greater test of his devotion to Hashem. The Jews attempted to minimize the greatness of Pinchas’s actions not by insinuating that he was a cold-blooded killer, but by hinting that it had come easy to him because his grandfather cruelly killed animals as part of his idol-worship.

The Torah therefore emphasizes that this act was performed with great personal difficulty and internal resistance. Pinchas’s natural instincts came not from his allegedly merciless maternal grandfather, but from his paternal grandfather Aharon, a man whose entire life was dedicated to the pursuit of peace. The Lekach Tov derives from this explanation the importance of adapting ourselves to the Torah and not attempting to interpret the Torah’s laws in light of our personal preferences, a lesson illustrated by the following story.

A person once remarked to Rav Yitzchok Hutner that the performance of certain mitzvos is too difficult for him since they run counter to his nature and he is unable to change. Rav Hutner responded by likening the man’s argument to the case of a motorist speeding down the highway who suddenly sees flashing lights in his rear-view mirror. He pulls over, and the policeman approaches and asks why he was driving 83 mph on a highway with a speed limit of 50.

The man foolishly answers that he did nothing wrong, as the car was set to cruise control and he wasn’t even the one driving at that speed. The officer dismisses his specious defense by noting that he was the one to initially set the cruise control to an illegal speed. Similarly, when a person comes before the Heavenly Court and attempts to justify his ways by noting that certain mitzvos ran counter to his very essence, he will have a difficult time explaining who was responsible for creating within himself a nature which runs counter to the Torah.

While every person has different mitzvos that specifically challenge him, the Mishnah in Avos teach that the strong person is one who conquers his evil inclination (4:1) and that the harder a mitzvah is for a person, the greater will be his reward for doing it (5:22), a lesson we should learn from the eternal covenant of peace that Hashem gave to Pinchas for acting counter to his peaceful nature.

V’el B’nei Yisroel t’dabeir leimor ish ki yamus u’ben ein lo v’ha’avartem es nachalaso l’bito (27:8)

A young man suddenly became ill and found himself on his death-bed. He realized that he hadn’t yet prepared a will regarding the division of his estate. Although he didn’t have any children, his wife was pregnant at the time. Uncertain as to the baby’s gender, he instructed that if his wife gives birth to a boy, the son should inherit 2/3 of his possessions, with the remaining 1/3 going to his wife. In the event that she gave birth to a girl, the daughter should inherit 1/3 of the estate, with the remaining possessions belonging to his widow. After he passed away, to the surprise of all, his wife gave birth to twins – one boy and one girl.

Unsure about how to adapt the deceased’s instructions to the strange turn of events, they approached Rav Chaim Soloveitchik for guidance. He explained to them that the solution is simple. The man made it clear that he wanted any son he may have to receive two times the inheritance of his wife, while he also desired that his widow should inherit double the portion of any daughter she may bear. In light of this understanding, the estate should be divided into seven equal portions, with the son receiving four of them, the wife two, and the daughter one … just as the man himself would have wanted it!

Vayomer Hashem el Moshe kach lecha es Yehoshua bin Nun is hasher ruach bo v’samachta es yad’cha alav (27:18)

As the end of Moshe’s life began to approach, Hashem commanded him to appoint his disciple Yehoshua to succeed him. Why wasn’t Pinchas, the righteous “hero” of the parsha, selected to take over the leadership after Moshe’s death? In risking his life for the sake of the nation, didn’t he display the extent of his dedication and commitment to them and to his beliefs, valuable traits for a successful leader to possess?

The following story will help us answer these questions. The Gemora (Shabbos 33b) records that because of disparaging comments he had made, the non-Jewish government decreed that Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai should be executed. He fled with his son, Rebbi Elozar, to hide in a cave. For 12 years, Hashem miraculously provided them with food and drink, and they spent the entire day engrossed in the study of Torah.

After twelve years, Hashem sent Eliyahu HaNavi to announce at the opening of the cave that the person who made the decree had died, and Rebbi Shimon’s life was safe. Rebbi Shimon and his son emerged to see the light of day for the first time in more than a decade. While they spent this time climbing to great spiritual heights, the rest of the world continued in its more mundane fashion.

When Rebbi Shimon and Rebbi Elozar saw men “wasting” their time on what they viewed as frivolous non-spiritual pursuits like plowing and planting, the Rabbis looked at them with such anger and disdain that the farmers were immediately burned by a mystical fire. A Divine voice called out, “Have you left the cave to destroy My world?” Rebbi Shimon and his son returned to study Torah in the cave for another year.

At the end of the year, they left the cave. The results were similar, but with one crucial difference. When Rebbi Elozar saw people engaging in earthly matters, he again burned them with his wrath. This time, Rebbi Shimon looked at them and healed them, explaining to his son, “It’s enough for the world that you and I exist.” One Friday afternoon, they saw a man carrying two bundles of sweet-smelling myrtle in honor of Shabbos. Recognizing the devotion of Jews to mitzvos, Rebbi Shimon and Rebbi Elozar were pacified.

This episode is difficult to understand. If the initial 12 years in the cave placed such a divide between Rebbi Shimon and the rest of the world, how did an additional year in the cave solve the problem when it should have only exacerbated it? The commentators explain that the additional year brought Rebbi Shimon to true greatness: the ability to understand and relate to those who aren’t on his level and to appreciate them for their good qualities, such as their dedication to honoring Shabbos.

In light of this explanation, we can appreciate the answer given by the Kotzker Rebbe to our original question. The very fervor and passion demonstrated by Pinchas, while appropriate at that time, rendered him ineligible to serve as the national leader. Rashi writes (27:16) that Moshe requested a successor who would be able to understand that every person has his own individual foibles and needs, and who would be able to patiently bear the burden of interacting with each person and his idiosyncrasies. Pinchas’s passionate devotion to truth and righteousness served him well, but would have made him an ineffective leader who was unable to understand and interact with each person on his own unique level.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available.
To receive the full version with answers email the author at [email protected].

Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     The Targum Yonason ben Uziel (25:12) writes that as reward for Pinchas’s reward zealotry, Hashem promised that he would live forever and would herald the final redemption. Our Sages explain that Eliyahu HaNavi was none other than Pinchas. In what way was this an appropriate reward for Pinchas’s actions? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Toras Chaim)

2)     When Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, the Torah does not identify them, and they remain anonymous until their names are revealed in Parshas Pinchas (25:14-15). If they were going to be identified eventually, why were their identities initially concealed? (Darkei HaShleimus)

3)     How was Serach related to Asher? (Targum, Ramban, Daas Z’keinim, and Chizkuni 26:46)

© 2011 by Oizer Alport.