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The Tragedy of Pinhas

Pinhas is one of the more challenging Parshiot to listen to or read. It starts out by YHVH announcing to Moshe that Pinhas, the son of Eleazar, the Cohen will forever be in charge of the sacrificial cult. Why does the parashah start out with the reward and what was it for? To answer, we need to start with the 10 pasukim (verses) of the account of the slaying of Zimri and Kozbi which were the trailing end of the previous parashah.

By splitting it this way, the Rabbis (who set up the Parshiot and their schedule) wanted to say that the killing itself was not the key item. I think that is true - the reward says that Pinhas was ardent for YHVH and made atonement for the people, thus ending a plague that had killed 24,000 people. While the thought of killing two individuals to end a plague that is ravaging the people may still sound harsh in our modern ears, I think that is a key part to what is going on.

The story of the slaying of Zimri and Kozbi is in Numbers 25:1-9. If we were to paraphrase the account into more modern language, it could be read:

"The people have been lusting after the Moabite women harlots. YHVH says "Gather the leaders; punish them at high noon [in front of everyone]. Moshe says to the judges, "[Find out who] has been actually physically involved; Each one slays his own people." [Just then as they are trying to figure out how to do this,] in traipses a man of the people and a harlot of Midian and they flaunt their activities, taking them into the [inner] tent [of the Mishkan]. The leaders cry [and wring their hands]. Pinhas sees all this and leaps into action [despite the inherent threat]. [The harlotry stops] and the plague stops. 24,000 died in the plague. "

Who is the subject of the YHVH's 'them'? Was it the offenders or was it the leaders? Traditional commentators say it was the offenders. If it were the leaders, then it would appear that Moshe misunderstood the directions. The Hebrew word also presents some challenges in that it can mean stigmatize, pierce or hang (what a set of choices). Typically, it is translated "hang", but stoning was the prescribed execution method for idolatry. So there is a textual hint that something unusual is going on here.

To our modern ears, the whole thing sounds extremely fundamentalist and extreme. Unfortunately, the choices open to a wandering desert folk in the period before condoms, antibiotics and modern courts were more limited. From the number that died in the plague, namely 24,000, a lot of Yisrael was sick as a result of the harlotry. There is evidence to indicate that the harlotry involved may well have been anal sex, but whether that is the case or not, the text appears to speak of a sexually transmitted disease. The leaders of Yisrael are obviously perplexed and trying to figure out what to do, as indicated by the description that they were sitting with Moshe in the opening to the Tent of Meeting and crying.

Sitting in the crowd, Pinhas sees all this and he sees that the leaders cannot respond. So he does. He "rises out of the congregation" and literally takes things into his own hand, killing (by piercing) the two who are brazenly challenging the authority of Moshe and the tribal leaders and performing an idolatrous act right in the Mishkan.

Then we get to this week's parashah - YHVH rewards Pinhas with a covenant of Shalom because he, in the one sharp act, actually prevented the larger scale slaughter that might have happened. We do not hear of all of the perpetrators being killed or even punished (like we did at the golden calf incident), even though 24,000 ended up dying of the plague.

Pinhas' move was not so much "taking it into his own hands" as it was that while everyone was wringing their hands and weeping and not sure how to proceed, Pinhas sees the leaders of the rebellion in the Israelite man and the Midianite harlot. During the piercing, we are not told who they actually were. This is classic Torah!

Torah wants you to say, "Hey, he was an extremist. Who was he to rise up and slay someone without Moshe directing it?" Besides, Moshe had specifically told the leaders that each one was supposed to slay his one people. Zimri was a Simeonite prince. He was not a Levite like Pinhas was.

So Torah describes the action as it might appear to an outsider, declares the reward for Pinhas and his seed. Then, when the audience is saying, "I don't get it, what's happening?" Torah responds, the man was Zimri, a powerful prince in a powerful tribe whom many might consider "beyond the law" and the harlot was nothing less than the daughter of one of the most powerful men in the nearby Moabite community.

The key to Pinhas' action was not that he struck out against a powerful pair, but rather that he saved many people by "seeing" that this pair was, in fact, the source of the problem, the plague itself. Once they were killed (dramatically), the rebellion and the harlotry and the plague (which are all connected) end instantly. It is only after the couple is named that the audience realizes that Pinhas saw through their status to their guilt and role in the plague. Fortunately for Yisrael, he was right and his action actually saved lives and squashed what was leading to an attempted coup.

This was not about forcing everyone to submit to the same religious practices or being a vigilante. This was about using surgical expertise to stop the deaths of thousands, which was ongoing. That the death was by piercing and not by stoning is actually a significant indication that the overriding crime was not the idolatry (horrendous as it might have been), but rather political rebellion which threatened to destroy the people in a "divide and conquer" move by the Midianites.

The tragedy of the story is not that Pinhas found it necessary to use killing as his method, then, to squash that attempted coup, but that in thousands of years, we have not yet learned enough to move beyond killing to achieve political goals, despite the much greater array of tools and methods at our disposal.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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