Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Pinhas 5781

Parashat Pinhas 5781

July 2, 2021

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Pinhas
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

Parashat Pinhas’ eponymous lead character is an unusual one, with his very brief story spanning two parashiyot. Last week in parashat Balak, we read about Pinhas’ zealotry in killing two people, whose names are later revealed to be Cozbi and Zimri, who he believed to be part of a mass Israelite descent into Moabite idolatry and away from God, spurred on by sexually immoral behavior between Israelite men and Moabite and Midianite women. In response to his act, God abruptly ends a plague which had been terrorizing the Israelite encampment, purportedly as a punishment for this idolatry. Thus ends last week’s parasha. While perhaps we’re used to overzealous or even violent acts coming to good ends in Torah, the beginning of this week’s parasha might still surprise us.

Pinhas’ story picks up this week with an offer by God to Pinhas of a covenant of peace, and a promise that his line will have an eternal covenant of priesthood. On its face, this story is quite simple. The Israelites are engaged in wholesale rejection of their own covenantal relationship with God. The Moabites and their allies, the Midianites, are somehow tricking them into this rejection by means of seduction. Moses and the leaders of Israel don’t seem to be able to do anything to stop it. Only an impassioned act on behalf of God’s honor can shock the community back to its senses.

On the other hand, this story is more complex than it seems. When Cozbi, an Israelite notable, brought Zimri, a Midianite from an important ancestral house, into his chambers, were they engaged in idolatry? Or were they simply getting married? We read in Numbers 25:6 that Cozbi brought a Midianite woman over to his brothers, his kin, in the sight of Moses, before bringing her into his chambers. Was this an act of flagrant disregard for Moses? Or was it a public act of celebration, of making sure that all was above board?

Bemidbar Rabbah speaks to this episode:

[Cozbi] seized her by her plait and brought her to Moses. He said to him: ‘O son of Amram! Is this woman permitted or forbidden?’ He answered him: ‘She is forbidden to you.’ Said Zimri to him: ‘Yet the woman whom you married was a Midianite woman!’ Thereupon Moses felt powerless, and the law slipped from his mind. All Israel wailed aloud; for it says, they were weeping (25:6). What were they weeping for? Because they became powerless at that moment.

The echoes between this possible marriage and Moses’ own marriage to Tzipporah, daughter of a Midianite priest, are obvious, but confusing. According to the midrash, Cozbi’s marriage to Zimri is a flagrant disregard of Moses’ authority, and the shameful reference to Moses’ own past stuns him into silence. But the wholesale casting of Midianites as villains does not comport with the entirety of our understanding of the Midianites, who have been peaceful allies of the Israelites throughout Torah. Although Tzipporah was maligned by Miriam and Aaron, she had an important role to play in preserving the spiritual identity of her family with Moses. And her father, Yitro, had an essential role to play in supporting Moses’ continued leadership of the Israelites.

This story represents a growing level of anxiety by the Israelites about the threats of neighboring peoples, some real, some imagined – will these people threaten us militarily? Will they destroy our families and our lineage through intermarriage? And worst of all, will they then destroy us spiritually? This anxiety, and the violent rhetoric and behavior it breeds, continues to plague the stories of our ancestors throughout the rest of Tanakh.

But God’s covenant with Pinhas, separated in this parasha from his violent act, perhaps serves as a corrective instruction. Leadership, embodied in the priesthood, should serve to ensure continued peace in the community, and not sanction the destruction of life as a solution to spiritual fears. God’s decision to end the plague may not have been an acceptance of Pinhas’ actions, but an act of regret, and a statement of hope that both God and humanity may find a new way forward together. May we all walk in the spirit of this covenant of peace!
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.