Parashat Pinhas

By Bruce Alpert

Our parashah this week begins in a curious place. The affair of Baal-Peor is related in Chapter 25 of Bemidbar – a brief 18 verses. Yet the story is broken in half by the division of the parashiot ‘ nine verses last week in Balak and the final nine in this week’s parashah, Pinhas. Certainly it would seem more logical to read this story in its entirety, within a single parashah.

Pinhas, of course, is a problematic character ‘ one who has troubled us at least since Talmudic times. His rash act in killing Zimri and Cozbi seems to define religious zealotry at its very worst. Yet that act ends a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites and, we learn this week, earns him and his family God’s eternal favor. How are we to reconcile our own natural abhorrence at Pinhas’s actions with all the good and favor that comes of it?

Perhaps that reconciliation can begin by noting this curious parashah break. By placing Pinhas’s reward in a separate parashah, our readings help shape the context in which we process its meaning. Three of the narratives that fill out this parashah ‘ the census, the appointment of Joshua, and the calendrical review ‘ all might serve to inform us more broadly about how to view Pinhas’s actions and understand his rewards.

Immediately after relating Pinhas’s story, the Torah turns to a new census of the Israelite people. Unlike the census with which our book began, this one serves as at least a partial review of Israel’s many trials and challenges in its already long history. Thus, the counting of the tribe of Reuben reminds us of Korach, Dathan and Abiram. Judah’s count reminds us of the deaths of Er and Onan, and Levi’s, those of Nadav and Abihu. The summary of the census reminds us that of the more than six hundred thousand counted, only Caleb and Joshua have survived from the previous census. This is indeed a stark reminder of the nature of biblical justice ‘ swift, decisive, but nevertheless, necessary for the survival of the greater community.

After recounting the story of Zelophehad’s daughters (a story which itself should serve to contextualize our understanding of biblical justice), the Torah turns to Moses’ appointment of Joshua as his successor. In this case, the language used can be very instructive in helping us understand the Pinchas story. God commands Moses to stand Joshua – before Elezar, the priest and before the entire congregation and command him before their eyes. (Num. 27:19) In other words, Joshua’s appointment is a public act. In the case of Zimri and Cozbi, the wording is strikingly similar, for there we learn that their actions took place – before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of all the children of Israel. (Num. 25:6) In other words, this was no private act of two consenting adults. It was an open, public revolt against the community and its institutions.

And as to those institutions, the narrative with which our parashah closes serves to contextualize them as well. This is not the first time that the Torah has reviewed the Israelite calendar. Here, however, the Torah emphasizes the offerings brought to the Mishkan on each holiday. In so doing, it stresses the centrality ‘ here spiritually, but also quite literally ‘ of the Mishkan to the Israelite community. Zimri’s and Cozbi’s public revolt, then, was directed at the very heart of that community ‘ a heart that Pinhas, as a priest, was charged with defending.

The structure of our parashah, then, provides us with a broader context in which to understand Pinchas’s actions. Its language helps us to understand the very public nature of the revolt the Israelites were facing. Its commandments emphasize the centrality of the institution that was under assault. And its historical review contextualizes the justice meted out to the perpetrators.

Of course, in this case, a mortal and fallible man is meting out a form of retribution that heretofore had been the province of God. I believe it a credit to the Jewish people that we have, for centuries, looked askance at such a potentially dreadful innovation. Yet Pinhas’s actions ‘ and his rewards for those actions ‘ demand that we view them in a broader context. That context shows him not as a hanging judge nor as some crusading fanatic, out to enforce his own norms of behavior, but as a soldier facing an existential threat to the community he is charged with defending. By breaking his story as it does, our parashah helps us see him in that context. And it helps us understand that while his may not have been an act of justice, it was, nevertheless, a just act.