Even when performing good deeds, motives matter.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Pinchas” (Numbers 25:10–30:1), which relates the episode in which the zealot Pinchas picked up his spear and killed two individuals, a Jewish leader and a Midianite princess, who were openly committing an act of immorality.
Who gave Pinchas permission to do such a thing? Was it justified?
Let’s take a look at the relevant verse: “God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Kohen, spared My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake…. Therefore, I shall grant him My covenant of peace … .’” (Numbers 25:11–12)
Some background is in order. In last week’s Torah portion, we read how Bilaam and Balak failed to curse and destroy the Jewish people through magical means. But Bilam had another idea, which was unfortunately ‘on the ball.’ Bilam told Balak that the God of Israel hates promiscuity and immorality. Therefore, he suggested sending his most attractive women out to entice all the Jewish men to sin.
Bilaam was right. Many Jewish men, particularly from the tribe of Simon, were enticed by the Midianite beauties and sinned. They went even further astray and worshiped the Midianite idol, making God even angrier. And to make things worse, Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Simon, took a Midianite woman into his tent and essentially committed an act of immorality in public view.
Things were out of control, and even Moses had no idea what to do. The Torah doesn’t tell us what the punishment or procedures are when a prince of Israel commits a public act of immorality. Not everything is written in the Torah.
Pinchas, however, knew the law that “when a person commits an act of immorality, zealots are permitted to kill him.” So he took his spear, killed the two prominent sinners, and with that, the plague of God’s wrath, which was killing people, ceased.
Returning to our verse above, how is it that Pinchas’ act of murder earned him “the Covenant of Peace”? True, his act was ultimately praised, and he was credited for stopping the plague, but his act does not seem to be fit the description “peaceful.”
Furthermore, the commentators ask why it was necessary for the Torah to tell us again that Pinchas was “the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron.” We knew that already, from as early on as the Book of Exodus. Why is it repeated here?
It is explained that after Pinchas committed his deed, the rest of the people started up with a look-who-thinks-he’s-so-righteous routine. The people mocked Pinchas for what he did and called him a hypocrite based on the fact that Pinchas’ maternal grandfather was once an idolatrous priest who “fattened calves for idolatry” before he converted to Judaism.
“Who is he to tell a prince of Israel how to behave?!” they said.
To answer their claim, the Torah reminds us again that Pinchas also descends from the righteous Aaron. And why was he given the Covenant of Peace?
A zealot’s motives must be pure and sincere. Some people would have done Pinchas’ act simply out of pleasure in aggression and violence. But Pinchas did it for selfless reasons and in order to stand up for the honor of God. He put an end to the plague of death in the camp. He restored unity, order and law to the nation. His act was indeed an act of peace.
We need to try to put more “Pinchas” into our actions. We should endeavor to be more sincere and selfless, performing good deeds with no ulterior motives. In this way, we will certainly bring peace to those around us.
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.
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