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A Zealot's Rage

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Composed by Rav Jonathan Mishkin, an author of the VBM Introduction to Parashat Ha-Shavua series, this site contains cross-referenced and searchable entries on every person mentioned in Tanakh. The website provides a literal presentation of the stories and lives of the many people who populate the Bible. The material on this website can also be ordered in book form. We invite you to visit the website to see for yourself what a useful tool it is for the study of Tanakh.





For more than a decade, Rabbi Soloveitchik spent virtually the entire day of Tish'ah be-Av expounding upon its major themes and reading and closely analyzing the Kinot, drawing upon on a whole range of sources including the Bible, rabbinic literature (Talmud and Midrash), medieval halakhic and philosophical works, Hebrew poetry, and Jewish history. The Lord is Righteous in All His Ways features the Rav's teachings on this day. Editor: Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter.


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In memory of Nathaniel H. Leiderman, Naftali Hertzke ben Mayer Eliezer v'Gitel
whose seventh yahrtzeit will be on 11 Tammuz.
Dedicated by Ira Leiderman and Mindy Smith and their children Eric and Cara.



A Zealot's Rage

By Rav Michael Hattin




Last week, we read concerning Bilam's threefold attempt to curse the people of Israel, and of his utter failure in the endeavor.  The scheming eastern seer, summoned by Balak the king of Moav and lured by his lucre to pronounce his deprecations, thrice ascended the Transjordanian heights and gazed upon the extremities of the camp of the people of Israel, each time hoping to be inspired with malevolent visions.  But the God of Israel, not bound by any of Bilam's banal spells and incantations, instead impressed the sorcerer with His love and admiration for them, so that each one of the hurtful enchantments was instead changed into an eloquent and exalted blessing.  So impressive and glaring was the contrast between Bilam's malicious intentions and his actual words, that a prophet named Mikha who lived some six-hundred years after the episode, could still recall it with awe as an emphatic expression of God's goodness, even as the people of Israel had in the meantime strayed far from His teachings:


Hear that which God says!  Arise and struggle with the mountains so that the hills might hear your outcry!  Hear you mountains of God's conflict, you mighty ones who are the foundations of the world, for God has a conflict with his people and with Israel does He quarrel!  My people, what have I done to you and how have I wearied you, answer Me!  For I took you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.  My people, recall that which Balak the king of Moav counseled, and that which Bilam the son of Be'or responded to him, for from the Shittim all the way to the Gilgal you ought to realize the righteousness of God! (Mikha 6:1-5).


In the end, however, what Bilam could not achieve through ethereal supernatural means was accomplished through more terrestrial and tangible methods: the people of Israel, stationed at Shittim in the plains of the Jordan, succumbed to the idolatrous wiles of the women of Moav and adopted the lascivious rites of Ba'al Pe'or with fervor.  God's wrath was kindled, and a plague raged against the people, so that twenty-four thousand of them perished.  Finally, Pinchas the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aharon the priest arose to execute God's vengeance upon two of the most brazen perpetrators, and the plague was stayed.  In consequence of his brave deed, God extended to the neophyte His "covenant of peace":


The covenant of eternal priesthood shall be his and his descendents forever, in consequence of the fact that he was zealous for his God and he atoned for the people of Israel (Bamidbar 25:13).




Of course, the swift and unforgiving zealousness of Pinchas raises many uncomfortable questions concerning the place of "vigilantism" in the service of God.  Could one in good conscience justify his extra-judicial killing of the prince of the tribe of Shimon and his Midianite consort, even as tradition maintained that the extraordinary circumstances mandated a lethal response?  What might be the implications for other equally zealous but less principled individuals who might follow in Pinchas' footsteps and execute the unspeakable?  It should therefore come as no surprise 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 that of Pinchas was only to be countenanced under strictly circumscribed circumstances (for a fuller discussion, see Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 82a-b).


Significantly, our parasha is not the last time that we hear of Pinchas.  From this point onwards, in fact, the priest seems to take on a greater role in the affairs of the people of Israel.  In the subsequent battle that Israel initiates against the Midianites for their villainous role in the affair of Ba'al Pe'or, Pinchas is dispatched as the accompanying priest:


God spoke to Moshe saying: Execute the vengeance of Israel against the Midianites, and then you shall be gathered unto your people.  Moshe spoke to the people and said: provide a vanguard of men from among you for the fighting force, to go against Midian in order to execute God's vengeance upon Midian.  One thousand for every tribe, one thousand for every tribe, from all of the tribes of Israel shall you send for the force.  From the thousands of Israel one thousand per tribe was dispatched, a total of twelve thousand fighters.  Moshe sent them, one thousand per tribe, they and Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest to the force, along with the holy vessels and the trumpets of signaling.




A cursory consideration of Pinchas' role in this episode may lead one to the conclusion that he is present only in order to provide closure to the incident of Ba'al Pe'or.  After all, the Midianites and Moavites had initiated Israel's lapse into gross idolatry and sexual immorality and Pinchas had been instrumental in righting their course.  But Pinchas' role in this episode is actually twofold: not only is he to be present in order to close the circle of infamy upon the perpetrators, but he also goes forth in his new capacity as the so-called "priest anointed for battle."  According to the provisions later spelled out in Devarim 20:1-9, when the armies of Israel war with an enemy, they are to be accompanied by a kohen who is to encourage and steel them for battle:


When you shall draw close to the battlefield, then the priest shall approach and speak to the people.  He shall say to them: Hear O Israel!  Today you draw near to engage your enemy in battle, let your hearts not be afraid, fear them not, be neither discomfited nor alarmed.  For God your Lord goes before you, to fight your enemies for you and to save you!


And according to Bamidbar 10:1-10, two silver trumpets are to be fashioned for the sake of rallying the people.  While the narrative there indicates that the main purpose of the trumpets is to regulate the wilderness journeys, so that the breaking up of the encampment and its reassembly are to be signaled by the sounding of these trumpets, the concluding verses introduce another more eternal application:


            When you go out to war in your land against the foe that attacks you then you shall shrilly sound the trumpets, and you shall be remembered before God your Lord so that you might be saved from your enemies.


It is therefore plausible to conclude that when Pinchas accompanies the armies of Israel in their battle against the Midianites, and takes with him the signaling trumpets and the "holy vessels" (the ark?), he does so in the capacity of the "priest anointed for battle" (for more on this matter, see the Talmud in Tractate Sota 42a-43a).




Pinchas again surfaces in the Biblical text after the people of Israel have crossed the Yarden under the leadership of Yehoshua, and after they have successfully smashed the Canaanite confederacies.  At that time, Yehoshua releases the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half Menashe from the army of Israel.  This is after these Transjordanian tribes had fulfilled their obligation to the rest of the people of Israel to traverse the Jordan with them and to fight on their behalf, as recorded in Bamidbar Chapter 32.  As they return home from battle, however, these Transjordanian tribes are filled with misgivings.  Will the rest of Israel, now dwelling on the other side of the river, one day regard them as outsiders and foreigners, cut off as they are from the rest of the nation and from the national shrine that has been set up at Shilo, in the hill country of Ephraim?  Boldly, Reuven, Gad and half Menashe erect a huge altar-like memorial on the banks of the river, in order to signify their eternal connection with their brethren.  But the other tribes misunderstand the motive, ascribing idolatrous intent to the initiative, and a delegation is quickly dispatched to warn them of the consequences of their perfidy.  Prominent among the delegates is none other than Pinchas the son of Elazar:


The people of Israel sent Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest to the people of Reuven, Gad and half-Menashe in the land of Gilad.  With him were dispatched ten tribal princes, one prince per clan for all of the tribes of Israel, each one of them a leader of a clan for the thousands of Israel…(Yehoshua 22;13-14).


In this context, however, Pinchas is presumably not sent as the "priest anointed for battle" (since no battle is at this time engaged) but rather as a pointed reminder to Reuven, Gad and half-Menashe of the destruction that may be wrought by idolatrous worship.  And might the dispatch of a delegation headed by zealous Pinchas not also serve as a tacit deterrent to those tribes to cease and desist from their perceived indiscretion?




Later still, Pinchas again reappears, also in the context of Israelite wrongdoing, but this time with more serious repercussions.  The episode in question occurs towards the end of the book of Shoftim, although chronologically it more properly belongs to an earlier era.  In the final chapters of the book, a most heinous crime is described in which members of the tribe of Binyamin from the town of Giv'a rape and kill an innocent concubine.  And while the end of Sefer Yehoshua mentioned above focuses upon idolatry, this passage highlights the other two cardinal crimes of sexual immorality and murder.  In any case, the other tribes of Israel amass a huge force to confront the Binyaminites and to secure the surrender of the perpetrators, but the recalcitrant tribe refuses to hand them over.   As a result, internecine warfare is engaged, with the Israelite force headed by Pinchas:


The people of Israel enquired of God, for the ark of the covenant of the Lord was there at that time.  Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon stood before it in those days and enquired: shall I continue to go out and battle with the people of Binyamin my brother, or shall I desist?  And God responded: arise, for tomorrow I shall surrender them to your hand.  Thus, Israel placed an ambush around Giv'a…(Shoftim 20:27-29).




A certain profile of Pinchas thus seems to emerge.  Here is a man inspired with a passion for that which is right, burning with indignation for the sake of God, and prepared to commit far-reaching and severe acts for His sake.  But while the Biblical text portrays Pinchas in a positive light and emphasizes the role of importance that he played in the life of the people, at least some of the Rabbis were less sanguine.  Recall that one of the less illustrious judges mentioned in the book of Shoftim is a certain Yiftach the Gile'adite.  This outcast and brigand, summoned by his anxious kinsmen from his wilderness redoubt to battle the Amonites, utters an impulsive vow on the eve of battle that he will sacrifice that which will "come out…to greet him on his safe return."  It is, of course, his only child – a beloved daughter – that emerges from the house with timbrels and dances, and, in a twisted act of devotion to God, he performs the dastardly deed upon her (see Shoftim Chapter 11).  The Rabbis, in pondering the passage, wonder why Yiftach didn't seek release from his vow, by approaching the wise men of the generation in accordance with the provisions laid down in Bamidbar 30:3 (but see Mishna Chagiga 1:8).  Their response is telling indeed:


…Was not Pinchas present who could have absolved him of his vow?  But Pinchas said: He (Yiftach) needs me!  Shall I then go to him?!  And Yiftach said: I am the leader and the officer over the people!  Shall I then go to him?!  Between this one and that one the young maiden was lost….Both of them were punished: Yiftach died from a disfiguring disease…while from Pinchas the holy spirit was taken away…(Yalkut Shimoni 68).


Perhaps, then, we ought to attach a certain vigilance to the zealousness of Pinchas, for while in the short term a grievous act for the sake of God may achieve positive results, oftentimes there is a price to be paid further down the line.  In the end, Pinchas' zealotry blinded him to that which was right, and an innocent life was sacrificed as a result.  The irony indicated by the Rabbis is of course terribly pronounced, for while the zealousness of Pinchas again brings about an act of sacrificial devotion, this time the offering is an affront to God, for a young and innocent girl loses her life.  Thus, when we consider the Pinchas paradigm introduced by our parasha, we appreciate the dire circumstances of Pinchas' stand at Shittim even as we are impressed by his courage and selflessness.  But we must not be blinded by the heroics so that we overlook Pinchas' flaw.  Zealousness is an unforgiving trait, often sowing seeds of destruction in its cleansing wake, and our Rabbis therefore cautioned us concerning its deployment.  May we merit the covenant of peace extended to Pinchas even while avoiding the pitfalls.


Shabbat Shalom