HERO OR CRIMINAL? – Pinkhas – Num. 25:10-30:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
These five chapters cover a rare variety of subjects, from the end of an epidemic, to a plan to attack an enemy, then to Moses’ second census after 40 years, determining future ownership rights in the Promised Land, which brings up a question of female inheritance for the daughters of a man named Zelophehad who had no sons. We will see Moses climb a mountain to get his last view of the land of Israel, and since he will never enter it, he now proceeds to appoint Joshua as the leader who will succeed him.
Next, we will learn about the sacrificial offerings – daily and seasonal. This section is quoted on all occasions of the Jewish year. Reading about bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the sanctuary, we may find it a charming idea, and indeed a version of it is observed by religious farmers in Israel today. A different effect comes from the number of sheep, cattle and goats slaughtered for various holidays. Of course we know that animal sacrifices had to be discontinued after the destruction of the Temple, to be replaced by spoken prayers. Here we will see how they lead up to climactic ceremonies still observed – and still animal-related – like sounding the ram’s horn, the shofar to proclaim the New Year.
Most dramatic and most discussed of all these subjects is the opening section of this reading, which concerns a man named Pinkhas (Phineas). The entire reading bears his name. At the end of the previous section, we saw him take a spear in his hand and kill both an Israelite tribal prince and the Midianite idolatrous prostitute he was showing off – thus halting the orgies and the resulting epidemic that was raging in the camp.
This reading opens with Moses receiving the Divine word to award Pinkhas “My covenant of peace. He and his progeny will have a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was jealous for his G-d and he atoned for the people of Israel.”
By his act of violence, does Pinkhas earn permanent High Priesthood for himself and his descendants? He was not carrying out a legal execution. The couple he killed, Zimri and the woman named Cozbi, never went to trial. They flaunted their violation. All the Israelites saw them enter the tent together. And all saw Pinkhas run them through, right through the tent.
Of all the major characters in Biblical literature, Pinkhas ranks with the most controversial. Rashi and other commentators recount that the tribes ridiculed him, considering him as lacking any right to take the law into his own hands and kill a tribal leader like Zimri. Maybe he should be tried for murder. How could such a violent crime qualify him for the priesthood?
The opening line of this portion identifies Pinkhas as the son of Elazar and therefore grandson of Aaron, which already should make him a priest, a cohen. But Elazar’s wife, Pinkhas’ mother, was the daughter of Jethro, a heathen priest who in Rashi’s words “fattened cows [to slaughter] for idolatry.” So if Pinkhas’ father could marry a woman who was not born Jewish, what gives Pinkhas the right to execute Zimri for cohabiting with a heathen woman? Negative opinions about Pinkhas continue through the writings of subsequent commentators including Sifsey Khakhomim (“Lips of the wise”), Klee Yokor (“Vessel of Value”) etc., all the way to Maimonides, the famous Rambam. He states that the law permits a “zealot” to kill a Jew who is having intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, even though a bet din (a Jewish court) cannot give him permission to do so. The reason for this ruling concerns the possible offspring of that couple. If the birth results from a forbidden relationship between two Jews, as when they are not legally married to each other, the baby will be a mamzer (illegitimate) but will still be a Jew, and will be identified as the Jewish father’s son or daughter. But in the case of a non-Jewish woman who gives birth, her baby is not a Jew at all, and “is not considered to be [the Jewish father’s] child…”.
And yet, this Torah portion that bears his name asserts that through his violent action Pinkhas turned G-d’s anger away from the people Israel.
Or did he? Psalm 106 tells the story a little differently. “Pinkhas stood and prayed,” says the Psalm, “and the plagued ceased.” Was King David, author of the Psalms, taking liberties with the facts in order to elevate the reputation of Pinkhas? Is Pinkhas really such a hero? He killed two defenseless people.
Was it prayer or was it murder? Or was it something else, something unique? Maybe Pinkhas carried out an act of affirmation, a violent and shocking act to be sure, but an extreme act made vital by an extreme situation. Maybe he saw a need no one else could see, a need for a nation to be shocked. They did not seem to realize that Midian was their enemy, with the false prophet Balaam plotting their destruction and actually causing the infection and death of some 24,000 Israelite victims of the disease contracted from the Midianite women. In Chapter 31 we will read about the military campaign that defeated Midian and killed Balaam. Pinkhas is there too, but he is not the leader of the campaign. More like an enlisted man. His father Elazar is the army chaplain. But without Pinkhas and his spear, would the battle of Midian ever be fought?
An extreme story, yet one to remember. The goal of many a war is peace. World War 1 was supposed to make the world safe for democracy, so in World War 2 we used to wisecrack that we were fighting to make the world safe for peace. Sorry, folks. That didn’t happen. Ink on the peace treaties of 1945 was scarcely dry before Arab armies attacked the new State of Israel in ’48, Communist forces fought their way to ruling China in ’49, and other conflicts followed. We know them and their victims all too well.
And yet, Pinkhas and his sudden violence did save his people from an immediate threat. There are situations where nothing else works. Not diplomacy, not negotiations, not even prayer. He “turned back [Divine] anger from the people of Israel” with a brutal but courageous attack. He shocked his people into action, and gave his name to this Sedrah – as well as to countless Jewish boys throughout the centuries. We don’t name our sons Balaam, or Cain or Adonijah (David’s spoiled son). But young Pinky’s abound.
Sometimes extreme situations need extreme action.