Parashat Pinchas begins with God announcing to Moshe that He would be rewarding Moshe’s great-nephew, Pinchas, who ended the plague that had struck Benei Yisrael as a result of the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. As we read in the final verses of the previous parasha, Parashat Balak, God unleashed the plague to punish the nation for having relationships with the women of Moav and worshipping Moav’s deity. Pinchas ended the plague by slaying a public violator – Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon. God announced to Moshe that Pinchas would be rewarded by attaining the status of kohen, a status which he would then bequeath to his descendants, for all time.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 21:1) makes a famous but enigmatic remark regarding God’s announcement of Pinchas’ reward: “Be-din hu she-yitol et sekharo” – literally, “It is only right that he should receive his reward.” Many different interpretations have been offered for this vague Midrashic passage.
Rav Zev Wolf Einhorn, in his commentary to Midrash Rabba (Peirush Ha-Maharzu), offers an insightful explanation, suggesting that the word “be-din” refers to the middat ha-din – the Almighty’s “attribute of justice.” Many of the mitzvot we perform, Rav Einhorn writes, are worthy of being rewarded only by virtue of the middat ha-rachamim – God’s “attribute of mercy.” Often, our mitzva observance is either deficient or driven by less-than-sincere motives, such that according to the strict, unyielding standards of the middat ha-din, we do not truly deserve reward. But when Pinchas committed his act to end the plague, he knowingly risked his life. He understood full well that Zimri might try killing him in self-defense, and that Zimri enjoyed the support of many among Benei Yisrael, who might rise to kill Pinchas to protect Zimri. By preparing to sacrifice his own life, Pinchas made it very clear that he acted with pure sincerity, and without any ulterior motives. Hence, the Midrash comments, “be-din hu she-yitol et sekharo” – he deserved reward even according to the strict standards of the middat ha-din.
Before we pride ourselves over our noble actions, we must ensure to carefully examine our intentions and motivations. We need to ask ourselves, honestly, whether we perform these actions out of a sincere desire to serve God and to fulfill His will, or if our intentions are less pure, and we are driven by selfish motives and interests. The litmus test, very often, is the level of effort and sacrifice we are investing or prepared to invest. If the act we perform does not entail much work or sacrifice, then there is a greater chance that it is driven by insincere motives.
At the same time, however, we must remember that our actions are evaluated both by the middat ha-din, and by the middat ha-rachamim. Even if our deeds fall far from perfection, they still have great value. Even if the middat ha-din won’t give us credit, the middat ha-rachamim will. As Rashi writes in his commentary to the very first verse of the Torah, God created the world with a delicate balance between strict justice and compassion. From the outset, He did not expect or demand perfection, and created a system of compassionate judgment. We are to strive to perfect our conduct to the point where it meets even the rigorous standards of the middat ha-din – but to also recognize that we will not always meet those standards, and that God cherishes every act of goodness we perform, even when our intentions are less than perfectly sincere.