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When Pinchas, who was a grandson of Aharon the high priest, took a spear and killed one of the princes of Israel (as he was in the midst of illicit relations with a non-Jewish woman), the Torah described his act as zealotry. For this act, he was rewarded a “covenant of peace.” This is one of those ironies of the Torah; what seems on the surface to be an act of violence is described as an act of peace. To understand why, we have to first ask some other questions that should seem strange to anyone who looks a little deeper into the Torah portion.

First of all, why does the Torah go to such lengths to describe the geneology of Pinchas, calling him “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron?” (Numbers 25:7). Usually it’s sufficient to identify someone by their name and their father’s name, so why does the Torah add the grandfather in this case? Not only that, but Pinchas was already identified much earlier, in Exodus (sixth chapter), so why repeat his geneology here?

Rashi, quoting from Talmud and Midrash explains that the rest of the tribes made fun of Pinchas by saying that his grandfather on his maternal side (Jethro) fattened calves to prepare them for idol worship. (Jethro, before converting to Judaism was a priest among idol worshippers). The tribes asked then, how could Pinchas presume to kill one of the heads of the tribes of Israel? In answer, the Torah traces Pinchas’s geneology on his father’s side back to Aharon, the high priest.

Here, you could ask the following questions. It’s understandable that the tribe of Shimon should feel animosity toward Pinchas. After all, he killed their prince and the head of their tribe. But, why should the rest of the twelve tribes express animosity toward Pinchas? In all likelihood they were outraged by Zimri’s act and should have been relieved that Pinchas had the presence of mind and courage to kill him.

Additionally, of what relevance is Jethro’s past? If the tribes didn’t like Pinchas, they could have accused him of a far more serious crime than being the grandson of an idol worshipper. After all, Pinchas was a murderer in their eyes, since he killed the leader of a tribe. So why did the tribes suffice by mocking him as a descendent of idol worshippers? Moreover, if the point was to make fun of his ancestry, why say that his grandfather “fattened calves for idol worhip”? They could have neutralized him more simply by saying that his grandfather served all of the idols in the world as a pagan priest before converting to Judaism.

And finally, whatever claim the tribes had against Pinchas, how was it refuted by stating that he was a grandson of Aharon?

The above questions are answered by understanding the nature of zealotry. True zealotry is performed by one who acts gratuitously, without any consideration for his own stature or gain. He acts only because he realizes something must be done. As it says in Pirkei Avot; “Where there is no man, be the man.” There are times when everyone realizes that something has to be done, but noone is willing to do it. In such a case, the zealot steps forward and takes responsibility. However, he must act selflessly; any self-serving motivation invalidates his act of zealotry.

When someone commits a questionable act and is brought before a court of law, he undergoes due process. He is brought before a prosecutor and a judge, and presumably a defender as well. We aren’t so concerned about the motives of the judge or the defending attorneys or even of the prosecution, since they are entrusted to act according to the law and all of their actions and words can be checked against the written law. However, the zealot who acts unilaterally leaves himself open to suspicion. Is he really altruistically motivated? Is he really acting upon the courage of his convictions? Or, is he perhaps motivated by selfish factors that invalidate his action? Does he simply want to carry out a decree mandated by G-d, or is he acting out his own individual aggression? Did Pinchas want to reconcile the Jews with G-d, or was he performing an act of glorified aggression and violence? The minute a “zealot” performs the act for the slightest selfish reasons, he is no longer a zealot. Thus, in killing Zimri, Pinchas left himself open to suspicion from all of the tribes, including those who were probably relieved by his action.

(Indeed, this may be the reason that zealotry is an action that is mandated by the Torah but not instructed. One cannot go to a court of Jewish law (beit din) and ask if he should perform an act of zealotry. If he does so, the court may not instruct him to perform the act of zealotry, even when they know that it is the correct course of action according to the Torah. Possibly, this is because the zealot must be so imbued with ideology that he has no doubt about his action. If he asks, it is a sign that he is motivated by other factors which in turn plant doubt in his mind. And if that is the case, then he is not the right person to carry out the act. The zealot must act out of purely idealistic reasons, without any thought of his own safety, security or even legality. Only if his sole motivation is to put an end to an act that incurs divine wrath is he a true zealot).

In the case of Pinchas, there were plenty of reasons to suspect that he did not act altruistically. If Moshe failed to kill Zimri (indeed, he ‘forgot’ that this was the proper response), and none of the Jewish sages were prepared to kill Zimri, then who was this Pinchas to take the law into his own hands? He was the “youngest of the band,” a relative greenhorn, who was not yet known for his knowledge or piety. So, from the point of view of the rest of the tribes, it was far more likely that Pinchas was acting out his own aggression and anger than that he was acting altruistically.

This suspicion was aggravated by looking into Pinchas’ ancestry. It’s one thing to serve idols, as did Jethro, Pinchas’ grandfather on his mother’s side. It’s quite another thing to fatten calves in preparation for slaughter for idol worship. That is a cruel act that defies explanation, even if one accepts idol worship (G-d forbid). Therefore, the tribes reasoned that Pinchas must have inherited his grandfather’s cruel traits and garbed them in the guise of the Kahuna - the priesthood. Pinchas’s grandfather was cruel within the realm of idol worship, and Pinchas was cruel within the realm of kedusha, or holiness. His killing of Zimri, according to this reasoning, must have been motivated by personal cruelty, rather than by idealism. That is why the tribes mocked Pinchas by describing his grandfather as a “calf-fattener.” The fact that Jethro was an idol worshipper was not the issue here; the fact that he seemed to act cruelly was the issue.

To this, the Torah responded by listing the geneology of Pinchas on his father’s side. Pinchas was not cruel. He was the grandson of the kindest, most peace-loving personality in Jewish history – Aharon the high priest. Pinchas was no opportunistic, angry young man, but one who served G-d selflessly, for the sake of reconciling the Jews with their father in heaven, just as Aharon his grandfather, “loved peace, sought peace, loved humanity and brought people closer to Torah.” The Torah emphasizes that Pinchas was from the side of Aharon as an answer to those who might have thought otherwise – that Pinchas was cruel.

The Torah also addresses the apparent irony that we see at the beginning of the parsha. The irony is that while it was Zimri, head of the tribe of Shimon who appeared to be performing an act of love (indecent love, as it were), it was Pinchas who received the reward of the “covenant of peace,” by killing Zimri. The Torah follows up the description of Pinchas’s ancestry with a description of Zimri’s ancestry – “Zimri the son of Salu, one of the princes of the tribe of Shimon.” Rashi comments that just as the Torah tells us of the praiseworthy ancestry of Pinchas, it also spells out the negative ancestry of Zimri. However, what was negative about coming from the tribe of Shimon?

To that, however we have an answer. While blessing his twelve sons, Yakov attested to the violent and tempestuous nature of his son, Shimon (“Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel” – Genesis 49:5). It was Shimon who together with Levi, who plotted against his brother Joseph and the two were ultimately responsible for selling Yoseph into slavery in Egypt. So, although the irony is that Shimon appeared kind and was really cruel, Pinchas performed what appeared to be a cruel act, but was in essence kind. There are those who would say that Zimri was doing something wrong, but for the right reasons, while Pinchas did the right things for the wrong reasons. In answer, the Torah informs us that just the opposite. It was Zimri who was motivated by his own lusts and selfishness, while in reality, Pinchas acted selflessly and on the courage of his own convictions. Zimri pretended to represent the interests of his own tribe, but was really indulging his own passions, while Pinchas seemed to act cruelly while in reality he protected and defended the entire Jewish people by reconciling them with their Creator. Therefore, Zimri deserved his punishment and Pinchas deserved the reward of the “covenant of peace” – the priesthood.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the old city of Jerusalem