This Week's Torah Portion: Bringing Peace Through Double Murder?

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Pinëchas (Numbers XXV,10-XXX,1)

Last week’s parasha concluded with the shameful incident at Shittim, a locale in Mo’av. The Mo’avim joined with the Midyanim in implementing Bil‘am’s advice to bring Israel down (cf. Rashi after Sanhedrin 106a). In so doing, the Mo’avim abandoned their previously high moral standards and demonstrated their utter unsuitability to associate with Israel. Some weaker elements of Israel – ha‘am – succumbed to their blandishments, but when the rot began to infect the leadership – Zimri ben Salu, nasi’ of Shim‘on, an ish mibënei Yisra’él (XXV,6), i.e. one who should have been part of the Torah leadership – Pinëchas took action. Seizing a spear, he ran both Zimri and the Mo’avi princess with whom he had been cavorting through. G-d’s anger was slaked; the plague which had afflicted Israel in the wake of their apostasy came to an end.

In the first four verses at the beginning of our parasha Ha-Shem tells Moshe why: Pinëchas, He says, héshiv eth chamathi mé‘al bënei Yisra’él bëqan’o eth qin’athi bëthocham (“turned away My wrath from the bënei Yisra’él by carrying out My zeal among them;” XXV,11). As Rashi defines the word qin’a: “Every instance of the word qin’a implies one who strives to avenge something, emportment in Old French”). HaMëtargém, who translates Rashi’s Old French glosses into good Judaeo-German which we Yiddish speakers can understand calls emportment Eifer or Ereiferung, that is “zeal, eagerness”.

Lachén, Ha-Shem continues, Hinëni nothén lo eth bërithi shalom. Vëhayëtha lo ulëzar‘o acharav bërith këhunnath ‘olam tachath asher qinné lÉlo-hav vayëchappér ‘al bënei Yisra’él (“Therefore, behold I am giving him My covenant, peace. And he and his seed after him will have the covenant of eternal këhunna, because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for the bënei Yisra’él;” ibid., 12-13).

Pinëchas’ action seems to modern eyes an act of fanatical homicide. Though the verse is at great pains to show that Pinëchas was not a short-tempered hot-head, by relating his ancestry in v. 11, thus explicitly connecting him with his grandfather Aharon, the “lover and pursuer of peace” (Avoth I,12), the killing of Zimri and his consort was a shocking event, one which the Talmud characterizes as “not in accordance with the will of the Rabbis” (Yërushalmi Sanhedrin IX,7). As such, it seems an extremely difficult precedent to reward.

Therefore, let us examine the reward. This, as noted above, came in two parts:

1) Eth bërithi shalom. The rules of Hebrew grammar do not permit the oft-heard translation “My covenant of peace”; that would have to read bërith shëlomi in the Holy Language. What is the significance of the phrase’s odd structure?

Additionally, the word shalom is written with a vav qëti‘a, a letter vav which looks as though cut in half; what does that mean?

2) Bërith këhunnath ‘olam. Yet another covenant; as Aharon’s grandson, wasn’t Pinëchas already a kohén? What goes on?

The specific halacha according to which Pinëchas acted, usually formulated as habo‘él Aramith, qanna’im pogë‘in bo (“Zealots attack one who has relations with a non-Jewish woman”), is unique. It is the only halacha in which asking a shë’élath chacham, i.e. consulting rabbinical authority to clarify some particular case, invalidates one from executing it. This, as the Torah Tëmima observes, is precisely why the Rabbis find the halacha uncomfortable (cf. the Yërushalmi cited supra). The act must be entirely motivated by a “spirit of zeal for Ha-Shem’s honor,” a condition virtually impossible for human beings to judge. How is a court to decide whether or not some tinge of personal interest was involved in the killer’s motives? This is why Pinëchas’ motives were initially suspect, until the judges heard, whether by a heavenly voice or directly from Moshe’s mouth, that Pinëchas was a qannai mamash, a genuine zealot, and absolved him.

This is one possible explanation of the shalom, the peace which Pinëchas was granted, i.e. freedom from prosecution for what otherwise would have been a double murder (cf. Rashi ad loc.)

The Sforno quotes another rabbinical tradition, that Pinëchas was granted an exceptionally long life, such that some identify him with the prophet Eliyhu haTishbi who, of course, never died but ascended live into Heaven (cf. II Kings II,11-12). The Ba‘al haTurim finds this hinted in the vav qëti‘a of shalom, in that Eliyahu’s name is spelled lacking a vav at the end of Malachi, which refers to his advent before hamelech hamashiach, Israel’s final redeemer, whereas Ya ‘aqov is spelled anomalously with a vav in Leviticus XXVI,42; thus, says the Ba‘al haTurim, the missing vav of shalom indicates that Ya‘aqov is holding the final letter of Eliyahu’s name hostage as insurance that he will indeed come.

The Ha‘améq Davar suggests that the shalom conferred on Pinëchas was Divine protection that his character would suffer no damage from his violent act, a danger which ordinarily would be only too real. Pinëchas was spared that danger because of the utter purity of his motives.

Rashi, following Zëvachim 101b, explains the award of the bërith këhunnath ‘olam by noting that Pinëchas was in an anomalous position: When the këhunna was given to Aharon and his descendants, it applied to those born after Aharon and his sons had been anointed in office. El‘azar, Aharon’s son, had married and begotten Pinëchas before the anointing; he was thus left out of the common inheritance of his brothers and cousins until now. The award in the wake of Pinëchas’ zealous demonstration made the bërith këhunna shalém (“complete”), another reason why the word shalom is written with the vav qëti‘a, enabling it to be read both ways.

The Talmud (Chullin 134b) suggests that the entire institution of the këhunna was given in its final form through the induction of Pinëchas. In Deuteronomy XVIII,3, three portions of sacrificial animals are designated mattënoth këhunna, “gifts for the kohanim.” The passage relates these gifts to our parasha: the zëroa‘ (“right fore-leg”) represents Pinëchas’ right hand, in which he took the spear; the lëchayayim (“cheeks,” including the tongue) represent Pinëchas’ prayer that the plague be abated (cf. Psalms CVI,30); the qéva (“belly”) represents where the spear penetrated (cf. Numbers XXV,8).

The Talmud’s reasoning here seems to be that since none of the portions is included among the mattënoth këhunna enumerated in ibid., XVIII,8-20, they were, in fact, only awarded to the kohanim in the wake of Pinëchas’elevation. Thus, a measure of shëlémuth (“completion, perfection”) came to the këhunna through Pinëchas.

Similarly, in Qiddushin 66b, we find: “One who has a blemish and has served in the Temple or the Mishkan, his service is invalid…for the verse states: ‘Behold, I am giving him My covenant, shalom,’ i.e. when he is shalém and lacking nothing….”

Now, the main probibition of serving with a blemish is found in Leviticus XXI,21-23. The Talmud goes on to tell us that the prohibition cited here refers to the most common case, that of a kohén who knows beforehand of his blemish, whereas our verse relates to one who discovers it during or after his service. Thus again, the këhunna was made more perfect, more complete, through Pinëchas.

The Talmud in Éduyoth VIII,7 tell us: “Eliyahu is only coming to make peace in the world.” It seems paradoxical that Pinëchas became a peace-maker through so violent an act. The paradox becomes stronger when we note the Talmud’s characterization of Pinëchas’ brother kohanim, descendants of Aharon all, as qapdanei tuva (“very exacting/pedantic;” Bava Bathra 160b) which Rashi ad loc. suggests implies that they act rashly when angry.

“Peace” has an immensely high value in Jewish thought and practice. Thrice daily, at the conclusion of the ‘Amida, we pray: ‘Osé shalom bimormav, Hu’ ya‘ase shalom ‘aleinu, vë‘al kol Yisra’él (“May He Who makes peace on high make peace for us and all of Israel”). Just prior to saying this, we retreat three steps; one of the reasons deduced for this practice is that we should be willing to step backwards, to compromise, for peace.

But “peace” is not an absolute in and of itself; we may not seek peace at any price. There are compromises which one dare not make. Torah is, as we assert daily at Ma‘ariv, chayyeinu vë’orech yameinu (“our lives and the length of our days”). Compromises of Torah values, Torah practices, Torah standards, as our history has shown time and again, leads not to real peace but to additional conflict and upheaval, for without the definition and guidance provided by Torah, we become rudderless, buffeted with the rest of the world by the whimsical winds of fashion and caprice.

The Zohar (III,176b) tells us: “Torah is peace, as it is written, ‘And all of her ways are peace’” (Proverbs III,18). Therefore, the Talmud teaches: “Anyone occupied with Torah for its own sake makes peace with those Above and with those Below” (Sanhedrin 99a) and: “torah scholars increase peace in the world”; Bërachoth 64a).

The Bë’ér Moshe finds this implicit in Pinëchas’ reward: Eth is composed of the initials of Eliyahu Tishbi who, as we have seen, “comes to make peace in the world.” Ha-Shem’s covenant is the Torah (cf. Pësachim 68b) by means of which peace is made. But, as the verse implies, to bring shalom the Torah must be shalém, pristine and uncompromised.

Thus Pinëchas, through his zeal, bequeathed shëlémuth to the kohanim, who internalized this message by becoming qapdanim in their halachic observance. But one must exercise great caution in applying this quality. As the Talmud warns us (Yoma 86a), we must represent Torah to the world in such a way “that the name of Haven will be beloved because of us.” Pinëchas was only recognized as a zealot and not an uncommonly bold murderer because of Divine intervention, as we learn from the Yërushlmi supra. Who among us has such purity of purpose that he can count on prophecy to bail him out?

A true kohén, whether a descendant of Aharon or a member of Israel, the mamlecheth kohanim(Exodis XIX,6), is a “student” of Aharon, as Hillel tells in the mishna from Avoth cited above, whose goal in the pursuit of shalom is to be “loving people in order to bring them close to Torah.”

There is a dual lesson for us here: On the one hand, to be certain that our zeal and apdanuth are motivated, as the Torah Tëmima wrotes, “by the spirit of true zeal for H-Shem’s honor,” not by fanaticism or personal agendas; on the other hand, to brook no compromise of Torah, realizing that, momentary appearances to the contrary, that path does not lead to shalom.

Current events both here and in the Holy Land suggest the both lessons are sorely needed.

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