SALT: Parashat Pinchas 2015/5775

  • Rav David Silverberg

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This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
Thursday 22 Tamuz, July 9th


Motzaei Shabbat


            Rashi, in his opening comments to Parashat Pinchas, cites the Gemara’s description in Masekhet Sanhedrin (82b) of how Benei Yisrael criticized Pinchas for his act of zealotry.  During the tragic incident of Ba’al Pe’or, the tribal leader of Shimon, Zimri, publicly engaged in an illicit relationship with a Midyanite woman, Kozbi.  Pinchas killed the two sinners, thereby bringing an end to the plague that God had unleashed upon the people because of their sinful behavior.  But afterward, the Gemara relates, the people scorned Pinchas, called him a “son of a puti,” referring to his maternal grandfather, Yitro, who, earlier in life, had “fattened” (pitem) animals to prepare them as sacrifices to pagan gods.  Yitro had been a Midyanite priest before embracing monotheism, and the people questioned Pinchas’ sincerity in committing his act of zealotry in light of his pagan family background.

            The question arises, why would the people have attributed Pinchas’ violent act to his grandfather’s paganism?  What connection might there have been – in the people’s minds – between the idolatry practiced by Pinchas’ grandfather and his killing Zimri and Kozbi?

            Many answers have been offered, but it is possible that this question needn’t be asked in the first place.  We do not necessarily need to assume that Chazal intended to portray the people’s reaction as a logical argument against the propriety of Pinchas’ act.  Perhaps, the exact opposite is true – Chazal specifically sought to show how the people reacted irrationally in response to the events they had just witnessed. 

Pinchas’ killing of Zimri and Kozbi sent the message to the nation that their involvement with Moav and Midyan was reprehensible.  Zimri, it appears, led the movement to permit relations with the women of Moav and Midyan and the worship of Pe’or, and Pinchas’ act was essentially an assault on that movement.  In response, the people resorted to discrediting Pinchas.  We are all familiar with the discomfort and unease that people experience when their conduct is criticized, when somebody forcefully expresses disapproval and condemnation.  Often, in such situations, our response is to simply dismiss the person as driven by an unholy agenda, thereby absolving ourselves of the need to take the criticism to heart.  And so Benei Yisrael went digging, so-to-speak, in search of any possible stain they could affix onto Pinchas’ record, and they came upon his grandfather’s previous life as a pagan priest.  There was not necessarily any logical connection between this “stain” and the nefarious motives the people sought to attribute to Pinchas, but this did not matter.  It served their purpose of discrediting Pinchas and thereby easing their conscience.

            If so, then Chazal here warn us against the tendency to react irrationally to criticism, to impugn insincere, ulterior motives rather than take the words to heart.  Our immediate reaction upon hearing criticism should be to carefully and honestly consider if there is perhaps some truth to it, whether we indeed acted incorrectly and need to apologize and/or change, rather than instinctively reject the person who criticized.


            Yesterday, we noted the Gemara’s famous comments in Masekhet Sanhedrin (82b) describing Benei Yisrael’s reaction to Pinchas’ killing Zimri and Kozbi: “Look at this son of a puti – whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idolatry – and who now kills a prince of Israel!”  Benei Yisrael questioned Pinchas’ motives, or his eligibility for the role of zealot, in light of his family history of paganism.  His maternal grandfather was Yitro, who had been the priest of Midyan before embracing monotheism and joining Benei Yisrael.  The people thus claimed that Pinchas’ act of zealotry was rooted in unholy motives, and not in a sincere, genuine desire to defend God’s honor.  As we noted, many writers addressed the question as to the possible connection between the paganism practiced by Pinchas’ grandfather and Pinchas’ act.  On what basis did Benei Yisrael advance this argument to discredit Pinchas?

            Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (as cited by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz in Hadarom, Tishrei, 5727) suggested that the answer lies in the fact that the woman whom Pinchas killed came from Midyan – his grandfather’s former nationality.  The rationale behind the people’s accusation was that Pinchas may have felt insecure or ashamed because of his lineage, afraid that it cast a shadow on his past and hence on his reputation.  Therefore, the people figured, Pinchas sought an opportunity to demonstrate his firm rejection of Midyan and its pagan beliefs, with which his family was once associated.  The incident of Ba’al Pe’or provided Pinchas with such an opportunity.  The people contended that when Zimri, a prominent member of Benei Yisrael, publicly took Kozbi – a Midyanite princess – into a tent to cohabit with her, Pinchas was given the chance he had always wanted to make his statement, to prove himself, to establish his religious credentials.  Once and for all, they saw Pinchas as thinking to himself, he would eliminate all doubts by forcefully displaying his firm, passionate rejection of Midyanite paganism.

            As Rashi explains, God spoke to Moshe to affirm Pinchas’ sincerity and purity of motives, and to proclaim that he acted genuinely for the sake of Benei Yisrael, for which he would be rewarded.  Nevertheless, the mindset attributed to him by the people is perhaps instructive in alerting us to how outwardly noble actions are often driven by the desire for social acceptance and to establish our reputation.  Like the people’s image of Pinchas, we all have insecurities and “baggage” that weigh on our minds and make us concerned about our social standing.  We all seek approval and acceptance, and much of what we do is geared toward achieving that goal.  The Gemara’s comments perhaps remind us to carefully scrutinize our actions to ensure that we are driven by a genuine desire to serve our Creator and fulfill His will, rather than to earn the approval and affection of the people around us.


            We read in Parashat Pinchas of the formal designation of Yehoshua as Moshe’s successor as leader of Benei Yisrael.  The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) explains that God told Moshe to name Yehoshua his successor because of the loyalty he displayed as a disciple: “You know how much Yehoshua has served you and respected you, that he would arise early and remain late in your place of meeting, arranging the benches and spreading out the mats.”

            The question arises, why did this particular quality render Yehoshua worthy of leadership?  How did his volunteering to “arrange the benches and spread out the mats” make him the best candidate for the role of succeeding Moshe?

            One explanation, perhaps, is that Yehoshua’s volunteering for “maintenance work” in Moshe’s study hall expressed his humility.  Despite being Moshe’s closest and most distinguished student, he did not consider himself above the menial task of keeping the room orderly.  Indeed, Yehoshua’s quality of humility is noted by Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel, earlier in Sefer Bamidbar (13:16), which comments that Moshe prayed for Yehoshua before he embarked on his mission to scout Eretz Yisrael together with the other spies.  Targum Yonatan writes that Moshe feared that Yehoshua’s humility made him vulnerable to the negative influence of the other spies, and so he offered a special prayer on his behalf.  It is thus likely that God pointed to Yehoshua’s menial work in the beit midrash as an example of Yehoshua’s exceptional humility which made him worthy of the position of leader.

            There is, however, another possibility (as noted and discussed by Rav Ronen Neuwirth).  Perhaps, the Midrash here seeks to emphasize the importance of practical, technical details as we pursue lofty idealistic goals.  Even in the study hall of Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest prophet who ever lived and would ever live, and with whom God spoke “face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow,” the benches and mats may not be neglected.  As we work to achieve spiritual greatness, we must remember that as human beings, there are practical necessities that must be attended to along the way.  While we must always ensure to prioritize and remain mindful of what is primary and what is secondary, at the same time, we must not neglect or belittle the practical technicalities that arise.  According to the Midrash, Yehoshua was chosen for leadership because he was able to maintain this balance – pursuing the lofty ideal of spiritual greatness without neglecting the practical, worldly necessities that must be met for this pursuit to be successful.


            The Torah informs us in Parashat Pinchas (26:11) that the sons of Korach – who led an ill-fated revolt against the authority of Moshe and Aharon – did not die along with the other rebels.  Rashi, citing the Gemara (Sanhedrin 110a), explains that Korach’s sons had originally participated in the uprising, but they later repented and were thus spared the disastrous fate that befell their father and his followers.

            The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 752) presents a more detailed account of Korach’s sons’ repentance.  It tells that Korach’s sons were once sitting with their father when Moshe passed by, and they faced the dilemma of whether or not they should stand in Moshe’s honor.  By standing, they would be offending their father, whom the Torah obligates them to honor.  But if they remained seated, they would violate the Torah’s command to give honor to Torah sages.  At that moment, the Midrash relates, they harbored thoughts of teshuva in their hearts, and they made the decision to stand in Moshe’s honor, recognizing the grave mistake their father was making.

            One message that perhaps emerges from the Midrash’s description is that teshuva does not necessarily come easily or intuitively.  The Midrash here does not describe Korach’s sons suddenly becoming inspired or moved to repent, or as having undergone some kind of moving, emotional experience that changed them.  Rather, teshuva was a difficult decision they reached after a grueling internal conflict, after struggling and trying to determine where they loyalties should lie.  They found themselves at a proverbial fork in the road that forced them to choose one course over the other, and this conflict culminated in their reaching the correct decision.  This was a rational choice they made, rather than a natural, instinctive reaction to an emotional charge.  This account thus teaches us that teshuva is something we can achieve at any time and under any circumstances.  Too often, we delay making the changes that need to be made, waiting for some bolt of inspiration or for some elusive feeling that will lead us naturally to improve.  Chazal’s description of Korach’s sons’ repentance sets the model of repentance brought on by serious thought and contemplation, rather than an emotional experience, teaching us that we are capable of repenting at any time, and should not wait for some elusive feeling of inspiration.


            Commenting on the Torah’s remark in Parashat Pinchas (26:11) that Korach’s sons did not die along with their father and his followers who revolted against Moshe, Rashi writes: “They had originally been part of the scheme, but at the time of the uprising they harbored thoughts of repentance in their hearts.  Therefore, a high place was set aside for them in Gehinnom, and they resided there.”

            The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, in one of his published discourses, notes Rashi’s formulation in describing Korach’s sons’ initial participation in their father’s uprising: “hayu be-eitza techila” (“they had originally been part of the scheme”).  This would seem to suggest, the Rebbe observed, that Korach’s sons not only took part in the uprising, but were among the instigators.  Rashi describes them as having participated “be-eitza” (“scheme” or “counsel”), which might suggest that they were among those who conceived of the idea of launching a revolt against Moshe’s authority.  The Rebbe further noted that this would explain the context in which this point – that Korach’s sons did not die – is mentioned.  This verse appears as part of a brief digression in the midst of the Torah’s genealogical record of the tribe of Reuven.  The Torah mentions that Nemuel, a member of Reuven, had three sons, two of whom were Datan and Aviram, two of the major figures in Korach’s revolt, and so the Torah briefly retells how Datan and Aviram perished for challenging Moshe.  In describing these two men, the Torah writes that they provoked the people to oppose Moshe (“asher hitzu al Moshe” – 26:9), meaning, they were the primary instigators, along with Korach.  In this context, the Torah found it necessary to note that Korach’s sons, who also took part in instigating this revolt, nevertheless survived, because they ultimately repented.

            The Rebbe adds that Rashi does not actually describe Korach’s sons as “repenting,” but rather writes, “…hirheru teshuva be-libam” – they harbored thoughts of repentance in their minds.  Moreover, Rashi writes that these thoughts arose in their minds “bi-she’at ha-machaloket” – at the time of the uprising, suggesting that Korach’s sons outwardly participated in the uprising, but in their hearts they regretted their decision and recognized their mistake.  The Rebbe notes that in Rashi’s commentary to Tehillim (42:1), he writes about Korach’s sons, “bi-she’at ha-machaloket pirshu” – that they “withdrew” from the revolt.  Here, however, in his commentary to Parashat Pinchas, Rashi does not appear to follow this view, and maintains that Korach’s sons took part in the uprising but harbored thoughts of repentance.

            The Rebbe further suggested that this perspective on Korach’s sons’ repentance may explain their peculiar fate.  Rashi describes that they were devoured by the ground along with Korach, Datan and Aviram, but were rescued in a “high place in Gehinnom.”  As they outwardly participated in the revolt, they outwardly suffered the same fate as the other rebel leaders.  However, in reward for their silent thoughts of repentance, they were “secretly” rescued and given a hidden, underground refuge where they were cared for.  The Rebbe claims that Korach’s sons remained there underground until all members of that generation perished, whereupon they were allowed to emerge from their subterranean haven and rejoin the nation.  For this reason, Korach’s sons are mentioned for the first time here, in Parashat Pinchas, which discusses the younger generation preparing to enter Eretz Yisrael after their parents had died in the wilderness.

            The Rebbe concludes his discussion by noting the clear message that emerges from this analysis – the power of event silent thoughts of repentance.  Although thoughts are not independently sufficient, and must be followed up by concrete action – and indeed Korach’s sons were punished, because their repentance was incomplete – this episode demonstrates that they are nevertheless significant and meaningful.  We should never belittle even the noble thoughts and emotions which we experience, as God looks favorably upon them and affords them considerable significance.  As much as we must strive to translate our noble intentions into action, and take the measures that need to be taken to grow and improve, even our thoughts and feelings of repentance are meaningful and have an impact upon our future.


            The Torah in Parashat Pinchas briefly recounts the story of Korach’s uprising against Moshe.  It tells that Datan and Aviram – two major figures in the uprising – “agitated against Moshe and Aharon,” and then later describes them as “agitating against the Lord” (“be-hatzotam al Hashem” – 26:9).  The Gemara, in Masechet Sanhedrin (110a), concludes on the basis of this verse that “one who argues with his rabbi is considered like he argues with the Shekhina.”  The Torah considered Datan and Aviram’s uprising against Moshe akin to an uprising against the Almighty, thus indicating that undermining the authority of one’s rabbi is tantamount to undermining the authority of God Himself.

The Gemara makes similar inferences from other occasions where the Torah appears to describe an affront to Moshe as an affront to God.  For example, in concluding the story of Mei Meriva, where Benei Yisrael angrily challenged Moshe when they found themselves without water, the Torah (Bamidbar 20:13) says that the people “fought with the Lord” (“asher ravu Benei Yisrael et Hashem”).  Even though the “fight” was directed against Moshe, the people are said to have “fought” against God because, in the Gemara’s words, “whoever makes a fight against his rabbi is considered as making a fight against the Shekhina.”  All these comments are codified as Halakha in the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 242:1-2).

The obvious question arises, on what basis does the Gemara extend this principle to all rabbis?  All the examples cited by the Gemara are situations of people who opposed or challenged the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu.  Needless to say, Moshe was unique in many respects, and it would seem reasonable to assume that specifically an affront to Moshe, the greatest prophet who ever lived, would be equated with an affront to the Almighty.  What led the Gemara to conclude that this concept is equally applicable to all situations where a student belittles or opposes his rabbi?

Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak – Shavuos, 32) explained that the Gemara’s comments relate to the process of the Torah’s transmission. Every qualified teacher of Torah assumes the stature of Moshe Rabbeinu, stepping into the role of transmitter of the Torah, a role which was initially and exclusively filled by Moshe.  The Gemara here speaks not of the honor owed to a scholar by virtue of his personal achievements, stature and credentials, but rather of the respect that is necessary in order to ensure the proper transmission of our Torah tradition.  Challenging or opposing a qualified instructor is wrong both because of the respect owed to a person of stature, but also because it undermines the process of transmission, which requires a degree of humble submission to rabbinic authority.  And thus the Gemara saw no difference between Moshe Rabbeinu and other Torah teachers in this regard.  All Torah teachers fill the role of Moshe Rabbeinu, the role of communicating God’s word to the Jewish Nation, and thus challenging the authority of any qualified teacher is deemed equivalent to challenging the authority of the Almighty Himself, who has charged the scholars of each generations with the responsibility of transmitting His Torah.


            The haftara read on the first Shabbat of the “Three Weeks” after Shiva Assar Be’Tammuz is the opening chapter of Sefer Yirmiyahu, which tells of Yirmiyahu’s inaugural prophecy.  In this prophecy, Yirmiyahu is shown two visions, one of which is a “sir nafuach” – a pot boiling over (1:13).  The pot was facing northward, as Yirmiyahu describes, symbolizing the fact that the enemies who would destroy Jerusalem would come from that north.

            Numerous explanations have been suggested for why God chose specifically the image of a “sir nafuach” to convey this warning about the impending calamity.  An especially insightful theory is advanced by Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (author of Aruch La-ner), in his Minchat Ani (Parashat Matot).  A pot, Rav Ettlinger explains, allows two normally opposing elements – fire and water – to peacefully coexist.  The water inside the pot and the fire underneath it are very close to one another, but because of the pot’s surface, they do not oppose one another.  The fire gives its warmth to the water without drying it out, while the water sits peacefully atop the fire without extinguishing it.  However, this harmony can be maintained only if the pot is covered.  If the pot is uncovered, the water will eventually boil over the rim and then extinguish the flame.  The image of the “sir nafuach,” then, symbolizes the friction and discord that characterized the Jewish Nation at that time, how the “fire” and “water” – the different kinds of people within the nation – were incapable of living together peacefully.  (Later, in chapter 8, Yirmiyahu bemoans the sorry state of incivility that he saw, how people cheated and lied to one another without compunctions.)

            A pot represents the possibility of different people living harmoniously together by respecting each other’s boundaries.  Fire and water can sit peacefully near each other – very near, in fact – as long as they maintain a bit of distance and don’t’ draw too close.  Rav Ettlinger understood Yirmiyahu’s prophecy as demonstrating that people with inherently opposing temperaments or ideas can still maintain close, congenial relations, as long as boundaries are respected and some distance is maintained.  It is when the pot becomes a “sir nafuach” – when the cover is lifted, the water boils over, and there is no longer any boundary separating the two elements – that conflicts ensue and the harmony is violently disrupted.