Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pinchas - The Zealotry of Phinehas

The previous parsha ended with the the violent act of zealotry of Phinehas, who killed a Jewish man that was engaging in public fornication with a Midianite woman, thereby saving the Jewish people from a plague. Parshas Pinchas begins immediately following this incident, with God's declaration to Moses:
Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, and I have not destroyed the children of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his children after him, a covenant of eternal priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.
The commentaries note that the Torah emphasizes the lineage of Phinehas, going back two generations, to his grandfather, Aaron the priest. This is particular significant, given that the Torah had already introduced us to Phinehas, and his lineage, just three verses previously.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b, cited by Rashi here) explains why Phinehas' lineage is emphasized:
התחילו שבטים מבזין אותו ראיתם בן פוטי זה שפיטם אבי אמו עגלים לעבודת כוכבים והרג נשיא שבט מישראל בא הכתוב ויחסו פנחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן
[After the incident,] the tribes began to disparage Phinehas, saying, "See this son of Puti, whose maternal grandfather fattened calves for idolatry, and he has killed a prince of a tribe of Israel!" Scripture [therefore] came and stated his lineage: Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the Priest.
(Rashi, on the Talmud, explains, that Phinehas' father, Eleazar, had married one of the daughters of Jethro - who was also known as Putiel. Jethro has originally been an idolatrous priest.)

On the simple level, this attack against Phinehas was entirely unjustified and represented nothing more than the type of anger that would be expected after such an incident. Now matter how justified Phinehas' action was, and no matter how beneficial it may have been to the nation, the reality is that after a violent incident such as this, there will inevitably be some very strong negative emotions.

However, if this were nothing more than the usual angry words that tend to float around after any incident of this sort, there would be no reason for the Torah and the Sages to record the exact nature of the complaint. The fact that this information has been transmitted to us indicates that there is something more significant going on. It would seem that the disparaging remarks about Phinehas' ancestry were, at least at first glance, justifiable, and it was therefore necessary for the Torah to emphasize that Phinehas was also the grandson of Aaron the priest.

Phinehas' act of zealotry, in which he unilaterally acted to execute a sinner, is obviously one fraught with difficulty on many levels.While, in the final analysis, there is indeed a principle that certain sins, such a public fornication with a non-Jewish woman, are indeed subject to a special law that "zealots may kill him" (קנאים פוגעים בו), in practical terms this law is extremely limited in scope. Many commentaries emphasize that one of the conditions required for a person to act on this principle is that they must be genuinely motivated purely out of love and "jealousy" for God. Any other motivation renders the act forbidden.

Thus, when the Jewish people looked at Phinehas, who alone, of all the great men in Israel, had chosen to act in this manner, they were deeply skeptical that his actions had been motivated purely by his moral outrage at the desecration of God's honor. After all, he was himself the grandson of an idolatrous priest, and, in fact, the son of a Midianite woman! Perhaps his motivation derived from other, less pure elements, that he had received through his non-Jewish ancestry. It was only with through God's revelation that it became clear that Phinehas' zealotry was rooted entirely his love of God, and that his actions were worthy of the grandson of Aaron the priest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love reading about judaism.