Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, "Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion." (Numbers 25:10-11)
Parashat Pinchas begins with the summation of a story from the previous parashah, Balak . In Balak , Pinchas, son of Eleazer and grandson of Aaron, slays a couple — a member of the tribe of Simon and a Midianite woman —for engaging in illicit sexual relations in worship of the Moabite god Baal-peor. Pinchas acts in the context of great turmoil and distress for the Israelites, when many in the community behave as Simon's descendant does, worshiping Baal-peor and having illicit relations with Moabite women. The community is plagued by their actions, and Moses, instructed by God, orders the public killing of the Israelite transgressors. Pinchas's passionate — even zealous — deed ends the plague.
In the opening lines of Parashat Pinchas , God expresses strong approval for Pinchas's actions. A form of the word kina, meaning "strong feeling" or "passion," as translated by W. Gunther Plaut-appears three times in Numbers 25:11: once to describe Pinchas's emotional state and then to convey an aspect of God. This multiple use of the word kina and God's endorsement of Pinchas's actions are somewhat enigmatic.
The parashah continues with God granting Pinchas a great reward for his deed: b'rit shalom , a "covenant of peace." Why would Pinchas receive a covenant of peace for an act of murder? Far be it for us to judge God's motives, but God's response, and the text itself, contain the answer to this question of morality and reward.
The text offers hints with the extra words that appear in Numbers 25:11: God says, ". . . by displaying among them his passions for Me." The words "among them" appear to be extraneous. Alshich explains that the seemingly extra words are meant to alert us to the fact that Pinchas's zealous action was not very popular among the people — in fact, some were ready to kill him for his zealousness! (Alshich, quoted in Harvey J. Fields, Torah Commentary for Our Times [New York: UAHC Press, 1996], p. 78). But those who were poised to rise up against Pinchas are stopped by God's intercession and reward. Plaut states that Pinchas is rewarded not for his act of murder, but for stopping the plague and saving the Israelites. He adds, "Phinehas's impulsive deed was not merely a kind of battlefield execution, but reflected his apprehension that the demands of God needed human realization and required a memorable and dramatic example against permissiveness in the religious realm" (TheTorah: A Modern Commentary, ed. W. Gunther Plaut [New York: UAHC Press, 1981], p. 1195).
What can we learn from this story in which a Pinchas, considered by some to be a zealot, stops a horrendous plague? We are reminded that there are many times when doing the right thing may not be popular. We are reminded that a great or awful act can stun and stop others from acting in sin. We are reminded that we each have free will, yet there are consequences, rewards, and punishments, both known and unknown, that result from our actions. We live in a time of wars, which, in so many ways, are driven by passion. Should we all behave like Pinchas? Perhaps the answer is yes, we should act — as Pinchas did — rather than sit in silence. But, instead of raising our spears, we must raise our voices and our consciousness levels, and raise our children to know right from wrong in the context of the community, of the world, and of God.
By the Way
- Our passions are like travelers: at first they make a brief stay; then they are like guests, who visit often; and then they turn into tyrants, who hold us in their power. (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52b)
- Ben Zoma said, "Who is wise? One who learns from all people. As it is said, 'From all of my teachers I grew wise' (Psalm 119:99). Who is mighty? One who conquers his passions. As it is said, 'Better is he who is slow to anger than a strong man' (Proverbs 16:22)." (Pirkei Avot 4:1)
- Hillel said, "You shall be like the students of Aaron: love peace and pursue peace." (Pirkei Avot 1:12)
- What are you passionate about?
- How does your passion drive you?
- Does passion ever lead you astray?
- What passions do you hope to instill in your children?
Deborah Niederman, RJE, is the Coordinator of Career Services for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Schools of Education.
Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568