A just reward?
Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, we read that Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, is rewarded for his zealousness on God’s behalf with the reward that the priesthood will continue eternally from his line.
The parsha also addresses several other important topics, including the second census of the people, the inheritance of Zelophehad’s daughters, Joshua’s selection as Moses’ successor and a summary of the calendar of observances with their accompanying sacrifices.
However, it is Pinchas’ reward that challenges me the most.
To understand this, we must look at Pinchas’ actions at the end of last week’s parsha that resulted in his recognition. The Israelites have consorted with the local Midianite women, and been led astray, to worship their god. As the people are outside the Tent of Meeting mourning the plague that has broken out as punishment, an Israelite man comes with a Midianite woman. Pinchas follows the couple and impales them on a spear as they are having relations.
While this incident raises many questions, I wish to focus on two: Did the actions of this Israelite warrant the severe punishment meted out? And did Pinchas act appropriately in carrying out the sentence?
While the Mishna (Sanhedrin 9:6) suggests that having relations with foreign women in and of itself is an act worthy of corporal punishment, the language of the Torah lends a deeper understanding of the nature of the offense. We are told that the sin of the Israelites was “liznot el-b’not Moav” (to act promiscuously with the daughters of Moav) (Numbers 25:1). It was not just that they had relations with these foreign women, but that these relations led them into idolatry. This view is clarified and reinforced in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a). These relations may be contrasted with that of Moses and his wife Tzipporah (who was herself a Midianite); in that case, the relationship served to draw Tzipporah and her family closer to the worship of God.
With this understanding, we can say that the offense was indeed quite grave. And the traditional sources are consistent in praising Pinchas for his actions, because he was motivated by devotion to God. However, we must also sound a note of caution, lest we understand Pinchas’ reward as endorsing fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
In the Torah, the situation is clear-cut; the couple flaunts their sinfulness in front of the whole people. In practice, though, relationships are usually more private, and we must be careful to ascertain the truth before we rush to judgment. The Jewish people have always been enriched by non-Jews who associate with the nation, from the erev rav (mixed multitude) who accompanied the Israelites on the Exodus from Egypt until today. We must be careful not to alienate those who seek to draw close to God even as we are wary of those who seek to draw us away from God.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)