The Zeal of the Kohen

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


The Zeal of the Kohen

By Rav Michael Hattin


Last week, we read the remarkable account of Bil'am's attempts to curse the people of Israel. Recall that the wily seer from the east had been hurriedly summoned by Balak the King of Moav who had become alarmed at the sight of Israel's relentless march towards his territory. Bil'am wasted no time in securing the reluctantly-proffered Divine permission necessary for his journey and then enthusiastically accompanied the gift-laden delegation from Moav and from Midian that had been sent to fetch him. Though all of the signs along the way, foremost among them the strange disinclination of his otherwise docile donkey to proceed, pointed to his own future failure, Bil'am's consuming thoughts of the hefty compensation awaiting him upon Moav's heights prodded him onwards. But success was not to be his. Three times he attempted to objurgate the people of Israel and three times God transformed his words into blessing. On the fourth occasion, the sorcerer was unwillingly carried away by Divine inspiration to peer far into the future, and once again he could see only Israel's forthcoming glory and triumph.

As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) had so perceptively explained, Bil'am's three pronouncements, neatly concluded by the singular fourth, were not simply restatements of Divine favor and blessing in ever-more forceful terms, but actually a progression of prophecies that together described the lengthy sweep of Israelite history. God had taken His people out of Egypt and soon they would enter Canaan and conquer its tribal confederacies. This would be followed by the successful settlement of its fertile but largely uninhabited slopes and then by the founding of a monarchy. The ideal state of the people of Israel would one day take its rightful place among the nations and would realize its ultimate goal of guiding all of humanity towards their most profound accomplishment: the recognition of the One and Absolute God and the unwavering fulfillment of His guiding laws.

Thus it was that Balak's nefarious schemes were utterly undermined, for it soon became apparent to him that no man could curse the people of Israel if God desired to bless them. No magic and no prognostication could prevail against the power of prophecy, and no predictions of doom could cloud Israel's future. Unceremoniously and with unconcealed disdain, Balak sent Bil'am on his empty-handed way, as the disappointed monarch fretted over the failure of his plot and the chastened soothsayer now came to appreciate the pathetic limits of his ability.


But Balak was not yet done. Unable to defeat Israel on the battlefield, unsuccessful at overcoming them by the dark powers of the occult, the chief of the Moavites attempted another eminently more terrestrial approach:

Israel dwelt at Shittim, and the people began to stray after the daughters of Moav. They called upon the people to (join them in) the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and they bowed down to their gods. Thus, Israel became joined to Ba'al Pe'or and God's wrath became kindled against Israel…Now behold a person from among the children of Israel approached and he brought the Midianite woman near to his brethren, in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of all of the congregation of Israel, and they were crying at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. Pinchas the son of El'azar son of Aharon the Kohen saw, and he arose from the midst of the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. He followed the man of Israel into the chamber, and he then pierced both of them through – the Israelite man as well as the woman in her belly – and the plague was stayed from upon the people of Israel. Those that perished in the plague numbered twenty-four thousand…(BeMidbar 25:1-9).

This time, if not for the zealous intervention of Pinchas, Israel would have been vanquished. But significantly, such a defeat would have been exclusively self-imposed. The message for Israel as they stood poised to enter the land was thus painfully clear. Though Bil'am's visions spelled out a bright future for Israel, one that was underscored by Divine involvement, immediacy and concern, their own poor choices could yet spoil things. As long as Israel would remain loyal to His teachings, there was no need to fear either the destruction of warfare or the deviling of wizards, but should they instead choose treachery, then all bets were off.


While the episode of the daughters of Moav at the conclusion of last week's Parasha seemed to naturally unfold without Balak's of else Bil'am's manipulation, as if the willing women just happened to serendipitously encounter the Israelite encampment while they were stationed at Shittim, a verse later in the narrative makes clear that the diabolical duo were in fact behind the scheme. First of all, God's paean of approval and promise of priesthood to Pinchas, with which our Parasha opens, are immediately followed by a command to assail the Midianites as punishment for their direct involvement in the intrigue:

God spoke to Moshe saying: attack the Midianites and strike them down. For they have been your enemies with their evil schemes concerning Ba'al Pe'or, and concerning Kozbi, the daughter of the Midianite prince, who was killed on the day of the plague that occurred on account or Pe'or…(26:16-18).

Later still, at the time that the Midianites are attacked and defeated, it emerges that it was in fact Bil'am himself who hatched the plan:

Moshe became angry at the chiefs of the army, the captains of the thousands and the captains of the hundreds who had returned from the battle. He said to them: have you then allowed all of the women to live? Behold, they were (a snare) to the people of Israel by the word of Bil'am, to trespass against God concerning Pe'or, and the plague then broke out in the congregation of God…(BeMidbar 31:14-16).

Putting the various pieces together, the following outline therefore emerges. Sometime after his fourth pronouncement but before taking his final leave of the Moavite tyrant, Bil'am must have offered one final piece of advice: Though Israel would neither be defeated on the battlefield nor overcome by execrations, they could yet bring ruin upon themselves by embracing the twin-headed hydra of immorality and idolatry! Let the daughters of Moav and the daughters of Midian, two kindred peoples bound together by their shared fear of Israel's approach (the former squarely settled in Israel's path and the latter nomads that were allied with them), attempt to blunt Israel's success by leading them astray. Let the women use their wiles to cause Israel to abandon stern God and to instead adopt the lascivious rites of the local fetish of Ba'al Pe'or. The exchange of the Absolute God of probity and morality for the idolatrous abandon of the various Canaanite ba'als would spell both the end of Israel's uniqueness as a people as well as the beginning of their national ruin.


In the end, of course, the plan was foiled by the efforts of one courageous man: Pinchas the son of El'azar the son of Aharon the High Priest. Rising from the midst of the people of Israel, some of whom had willingly strayed from God and many of whom now looked on helplessly, themselves shocked and dismayed by the turn of events but paralyzed by Moshe's own inaction, Pinchas took a spear and struck down the perpetrators. Unconcerned for his own safety or wellbeing, Pinchas acted, though the brazen man was a respected prince of the tribe of Shim'on and his consort was a Midianite princess with substantial pedigree.

The swift zealousness of Pinchas raises many uncomfortable questions concerning the place of "vigilantism" in the service of God. No wonder that when the Rabbis came to consider the matter from the point of view of the Halakha and to formulate guiding principles in accordance with the Oral Tradition, they determined that conduct such as his was only to be countenanced under strictly circumscribed circumstances (for a fuller discussion, see Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 82a-b). But when considering the episode from a purely contextual standpoint, it is difficult to imagine a different outcome. This is to say that Pinchas' behavior was a direct response to the earlier failed attempts of Balak and Bil'am to harm the people of Israel. The Moavite monarch and his hired help had painfully ascertained that any EXTERNALLY imposed threats could not menace the people of God – they could not be bested in battle that unfolds in concrete time and space, nor could they be overcome by the magic arts that seek to shape and to manipulate more ethereal realities. The only possibility of overcoming them, then, was by unleashing an INTERNAL and ultimately more insidious process of self-destruction. By leading them astray so that Israel ITSELF would willingly act against God and abrogate the special and intimate bond that existed between the people and their Deity, Balak and all those that followed in his footsteps could yet prevail.

Thus it was that the "correction" for the course had to be set by a man who would arise "from the midst of the congregation" (BeMidbar 25:7) and who would act without hesitation to arrest the downward spiral. The internal decline had to be matched by an internal response, the descent into sexual immorality and idolatry to be matched by the ultimate counterstrike. The conduct of Pinchas was never allowed to become a paradigm for general religious fervor and the priest did not later serve as an exemplar for the service of God (see, for instance, the negative portrayal of Pinchas preserved in Yalkut Shim'oni Sefer Shoftim Chapter 11 Section 68 concerning the episode of Yiftach's daughter). But his bold deed had to be done so that Israel could reclaim its essential self.


It therefore is more than poetic justice that it is Pinchas who later leads the twelve thousand troops of Israel into battle against the Midianites and vanquishes them, slaying Bil'am the son of Be'or in the encounter:

A thousand from each tribe were volunteered by Israel, twelve thousand warriors were sent to battle. Moshe sent them, a thousand for each tribe to battle, they and Pinchas the son of El'azar the Kohen who took with him the holy vessels and the trumpets of proclamation. They arrayed themselves against Midian, just as God had commanded Moshe, and they killed all of the males. As for the kings of Midian, they killed them along with the other casualties – Evi, Rekem, Tzur, Chur and Reva, the five kings of Midian – and Bil'am the son of Be'or they killed by the sword (BeMidbar 31:5-8).

The irony is pronounced: the crafty seer from the east who had been forced by failure to abandon his usual magic methods in order to counter Israel by more earthly means, stands in direct and inverted opposition to the son of Aharon the Kohen who also reluctantly surrendered his peaceful and spiritual pursuits to don the garb of the warrior. Blow was matched for blow and Pinchas prevailed, and only he was able to stay the plague, for "he was zealous on My behalf IN THEIR MIDST" (BeMidbar 25:11).

Though it may strike us as a truism, one of the Parasha's most abiding lessons concerns the role of Israel in writing their own history. Ultimately, it is the choices that we make as a people and as individuals that have the greatest effect in shaping our destiny. Though we often imagine that we are hostages to external powers of a material or else a spiritual nature, as if other nations or else the stars could decree our fate, we are in fact sovereign over both. The only real fashioners of our future, then, are the decisions that we make as a function of our own free will. The might of Moav and the machinations of Midian cannot prevail as long as we are champions of our own unique identity, freely allying ourselves with the mission that God bestowed upon us more than three thousand years ago. It is only when we surrender that special responsibility in search of other gods, whether of the material, political, or military variety, that we are in danger of decline. Let us hope that the people of Israel and its leaders choose to cleave to God and to keep His commands, so that we may yet overcome and prevail against all of the manifold forces that still threaten our existence.

Shabbat Shalom