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Parashat Pinhas

July 7, 2009

By Julius Rabinowitz

Pinhas, the son of Elazar the son of Aaron, got up and took a spear in his hand and ran it through Zimri, the son of a chieftain from the tribe of Simon, and Cozbi, the daughter of a leader of the Midianites. What was their heinous crime that deserved such punishment: a public sexual act of undefined nature?

This week’s Torah portion is called “Pinhas” and you would be excused if you couldn’t find this gory depiction in the reading. Because it was in last week’s reading. This week we only read about God’s rewarding Pinhas with the “covenant of peace” for eternity – the only person to receive this reward from God. But if you didn’t read last week’s Torah portion you wouldn’t have a clue as to what he did to deserve the unique reward as the only indication we have this week is that Pinhas was “jealous for his God and made atonement for the children of Israel.” But it was his unilateral undertaking in murdering these two people which merited his divine reward.

The Rabbis of old had a great deal of difficulty with Pinhas’ actions, which were nothing short of vigilantism of the highest order, and then God’s apparent compounding of those actions through the eternal reward of peace. So, in setting up the weekly Torah readings the Rabbis insured that when we hear these portions in our annual sojourn through the Torah, we wouldn’t connect them. And if you look up weekly Torah commentary websites and dial up Pinhas, you will notice the general reluctance to deal with these verses.

Who could fault them? Why just a little more than a month ago, a modern-day Pinhas claiming to be acting in the name of God, cut down a doctor who had been performing abortions, and committed this act of callous murder in a church no less. While this 21st century vigilante made no chutzpinik claim to a Pinhas-like reward, the similarities of action to our weekly portion are stunning. Our 21st century assassin saw an action, late-term abortions, which he concluded to be despicable in the eyes of God and for which he was obligated to be “jealous for God” and decided to “eliminate” this defilement from our midst. Fortunately, even the leaders of the anti-abortion movement quickly rose up and condemned the actions as rank vigilantism and cowardice.

So how do we read Pinhas? We can’t just overlook the story – it’s part of our Torah, and we can’t simply pick and choose which portions are acceptable and which are not. So, how to deal with it?

Rather than looking at Pinhas and his two victims as three separate people and as a sanctioning of vigilantism, let’s think of them as one single person, with two identities: one being Pinhas and the other being the Zimri/Cosbi combination.

Each day we strive to overcome life’s challenges, the temptations that are constantly dangled before our eyes as we seek to achieve our highest level of personal holiness. Many of them can be overcome with our hands tied behind our back. For instance, the urge to commit the sin of Cain and to kill our “brother” will hardly arise during the course of our lives, and if it ever did we are easily able to control the emotional rage that generated the urge.

But for other temptations to do “wrong” it’s not that effortless to resist. Without going through a full litany of the more challenging enticements, appealing to our sexual urge is without doubt among the most difficult for some to resist. How often does the “wrong” sexual activity present itself as a readily available pursuit that we can easily satisfy and believe that we could get away with it? The recent episode involving the governor of South Carolina is a testament for how tempting is the act and how easily one can “excuse” it – until it is too late.

This is where Pinhas fits in. Pinhas’ “aggressive” behavior is just what is called for when that illicit sexual urge, the Zimri-Cosbi combination, raises its head. It is not enough to assert the usual defenses to the everyday opportunities presented by the evil inclination that constantly be-devil us. Rather, when the opportunity for the wrongful sex act arises – and for each of us the definition of “wrongful” will depend on the circumstances – we have to identify and implement the strongest weapon in our armory, our “spear,” and to successfully meet that challenge by “running it through” the urge. Nothing less will do. But when we do, and when we succeed, the “eternal peace” awarded to Pinhas will be our reward as well.


Julius Rabinowitz is a Rabbinical student at The Academy for Jewish Religion and is a part-time consultant-attorney for General Electric Company.