Parashat Pinchas begins with God’s proclamation that He was rewarding Pinchas for his act of zealotry, killing Zimri and Kozbi as they publicly sinned during the incident of Ba’al Pe’or at Shittim. God here gives His clear approval to Pinchas’ act, which, as Rashi writes, generated a great deal of controversy and was condemned by many among Benei Yisrael.
Surprisingly, we find a Midrashic passage that appears to indicate that God disapproved of Pinchas’ zealotry. Numerous sources identify Pinchas with Eliyahu, the prophet during the First Commonwealth who zealously opposed the worship of Ba’al in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and even killed the prophets of Ba’al at Mount Carmel (Melakhim I 18). The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Melakhim II 2:15) comments that God said to Eliyahu, “You are always zealous! You were zealous in Shittim over sexual immorality, and now, too, you are zealous!” It appears that God criticized Eliyahu both for his zealotry in Shittim, at the time of Ba’al Pe’or, and also for his zealotry in opposing the worship of Ba’al at the time of Achav and Izevel. The obvious question arises, why did God now express disapproval of Pinchas’ zealous act, after emphatically congratulating Pinchas and even promising him reward for his zealotry?
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Mussar Ha-nevi’im, suggests an answer by noting the different contexts of these two acts of zealotry. Pinchas’ act at Shittim occurred during Benei Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness, when they lived a miraculous existence and were accompanied at all times by the Divine Presence. The Vilna Gaon famously remarked that although ordinarily the kohen gadol is permitted in the kodesh ha-kodashim – the innermost chamber of the Mikdash – only on Yom Kippur, Aharon was allowed to enter the kodesh ha-kodashim and perform the Yom Kippur service any day of the year. During the years Benei Yisrael spent in the wilderness, each day of the year had the status of Yom Kippur, given the intensity of the Divine Presence during that period, and therefore Aharon was permitted on any day to perform the Yom Kippur service. Under such conditions, Pinchas’ violent response to Zimri and Kozbi’s act was, in principle, appropriate. When Benei Yisrael lived on an especially high spiritual level and the Divine Presence was palpable, a grievous sinful act such as the one committed by Zimri and Kozbi warranted an extreme response. In Eliyahu’s time, however, the people were very far from Torah observance and from the Divine Presence. Their condition bore little resemblance to the atmosphere of sanctity felt in the Israelite camp in the wilderness, and thus a softer and more patient approach was warranted. The fact that Eliyahu acted zealously at that time called into question his zealotry in Shittim, as it demonstrated that he did not take into account the broader context and circumstances. If he was zealous in the times of Achav and Izevel, then this showed that his zealotry at Ba’al Pe’or was done without proper consideration.
This insight reminds us that different circumstances and contexts warrant different responses. Solutions used effectively in one situation are not necessarily appropriate for solving the same problem in a different situation. Eliyahu’s failure was reacting in the times of Achav and Izevel the same way Pinchas reacted in the times of Moshe Rabbenu. Every generation and set of circumstances offers its unique challenges and requires different strategies, and so measures that were appropriate at the time of Ba’al Pe’or were not necessarily appropriate at the time of Achav and Izevel.