What was the significance of Moses forgetting a law and Pinchas stepping up in a key moment?

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion (in Israel) is “Pinchas” (Numbers 25:10-30:1) and in it we read about Pinchas, the zealot for God who acted to stop a public display of immorality between Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi (no relation to Bill), a Midianite princess.

With the death of these two, the plague that God sent as a punishment for the rampant immorality among many Jews finally ceased. As a result, Pinchas was rewarded with becoming a Kohen — the first and only one to become a Kohen not by virtue of ancestry.

This guy Zimri, otherwise a righteous man before the pretty Midianite ladies got the better of him, was very “chutzpadik.”

We are told that Zimri publicly challenged Moses arguing that he was permitted to have relations with Kozbi because Moses had married a Midianite woman, Tzipporah. (Moses may have also married an Ethiopian princess, but that is a story for another time). As such, Zimri argued, if Moses is allow to marry a Gentile woman then so could he.

Although Zimri might have had a reasonable argument, he was disregarding the fact that Moses married who he married before the Torah was given and, by extension, before any laws on intermarriage were enacted. Zimri’s rebellion took place after the Torah was given and by extension, after God “laid down the law.”

It is also noted that Moses’ wives converted to monotheism while Zimri’s girlfriend had no such intention.

Moses was unsure how to react to Zimri’s challenge, which was taking place in full view of the nation.

Moses had forgotten the law that “a zealot is permitted to kill a public perpetrator of immorality.”

Moses forgetting a law? Yes…that’s exactly what happened. If fact, we are told that the nation began to weep when the scene unfolded because Moses was unsure how to proceed! We are told that it was Pinchas who reminded Moses that it was permissible to kill Zimri.

So the questions are asked: Why did Moses’ forgetfulness trigger weeping? Why didn’t Moses simply ask God what to do? Why was it Pinchas who killed Zimri and Kozbi? Once Pinchas reminded Moses of the law, it should have the latter, the leader, to do the deed! Why did Pinchas end up doing it anyway?

It is explained that the nation did not begin weeping because Moses forget the law, but rather, Moses’s weakness made them realize how much more weaker they must be. If even Moses could forget his knowledge, how much more so should the people worry. (Moses was happy to be the example on how nobody but nobody is perfect.)

More importantly Pinchas took action because Moses (and everyone else) knew that Moses was soon going to pass away and Joshua and others would be taking over. Moses was happy to stand aside in order for the next generation of leaders to step up to the plate. Moses wanted to be reassured in these days prior to his passing that the Jewish people would have competent leadership when he was gone.

And Pinchas passed with flying spears… I mean colors.

As such, this painful episode was the opportunity for a leader to lead by example, by not trying to hide his weaknesses and ensuring that the nation would be taken care of when he is gone. How sad it is today that leaders can never admit when they are wrong, and demand on leading even when uncalled for and even when it will be at the expense of the people they are leading. We need more leaders like our Torah leaders!