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Vol. 8 # 37 JL 5-6, '96: Parshas Pinchus

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

The Zeal That Brought Calm

          In last week's parsha, Bilam was hired to destroy the Israelites. When all his attempts failed, he suggested sending attractively attired women to snare Israelite men into committing harlotry and idolatry.

           The plot is a great success: the camp turns into chaos. Moshe convenes his court, and orders the judges to personally bring the guilty to justice. At this point, Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly takes a Midyanite princess in front of all the leaders, and mocks Moshe in front of them. He accuses Moshe of duplicity, because Moshe's wife Tzipora was herself a Midyanite. Moshe could easily have answered, but realized that he would be accused of having a conflict of interest. He is silenced, and the leaders are dumbfounded.

           Pinchus, a grandson of Aharon, the Kohein, took a spear and slew Zimri and the woman. The act knocked people to their senses, and order returned to the camp. Because of his courage, many lives were saved. Rashi says that thousands had been declared guilty of the death penalty, and the verses state that 24,000 died of heavenly retribution. However, after Pinchus' quick thinking, the plague ceased, and the court offered clemency.

Sensitivity Versus Law (Halacha)

1. I was asked recently: "People are very stringent regarding halacha. Granted that law is a vital aspect of the Torah. But isn't it true that there are other factors that must be taken into account? The ethical aspect of the Torah must override the halacha at times! People don't always see it that way; unfortunately, they may lose their reward through the loss of basic sensitivity."

2. In my answer, although stressing that we should give others the benefit of the doubt, I did nonetheless agree. We often see that the ordinary law is such and such, "except where Chilul Hashem (profaning G-d's name) differs." It could be understood that the strict halacha says one thing, but supra-halachic concepts may override. Quite true, people often forget the Chilul Hashem aspect, and act by the "strict halacha."

3. Shortly afterwards, I came across the Chazan Ish, who showed that my logic was inaccurate. The sensitivity is part and parcel of the halacha! This is a great error -- the Chazan Ish wrote -- that people fail to see that the ethical issues are legal ones. They think to distinguish the legal from the ethical -- and it seems to us that they negate the ethical. In reality, by violating the ethical, they violate the legal as well!

4. Actually, it's quite clear. In my example above, when people forget the clause "except for Chilul Hashem," they have halved the halacha -- forgeting the most crucial aspect of the halacha: the "Kidush Hashem" (sanctification of G-d's Name), and the "Chilul Hashem!"

5. The Chazon Ish showed this idea in different ways. Sometimes, he showed, by failing to study the laws correctly, people can warp the Torah's morality. Sometimes, quite the reverse -- by failing to study the ethical attitude of the Torah (mussar, proper conduct), the laws are completely distorted.

          Last year, in Insights Vol. 7 # 42: "The Responsibility of the Individual in Society," we discussed vigilante action. We wrote, "Our parsha does not tell us about vigilantes. Rather, the Talmud states that in the case of Pinchus, the particular crime is exceptional; in this situation, Pinchus' action was legally permissible. (For details, see Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Ktav.)"

           There is no difficulty in proving from the parsha itself that this was not a vigilante act. Moshe had already ordered the judges to personally execute the guilty (Numbers 25:5). In addition to this clear verse, Rashi relates that Pinchus discussed his action with Moshe beforehand, and secured confirmation from the Chief Judge. Finally, the Torah tells that a plague killed 24,000 people until Pinchus "stopped the Plague." (Numbers 25:8-9)

           Not to confuse Pinchus' act with the murderous act of a trigger-happy youth, notice that Pinchus was restoring order to the camp, by bringing legal justice to the guilty. The result was "Brisi Shalom" -- "My Covenant of Peace." The legal act brought about peace; the violent crime brings about more division. This distinction was made, in our parsha, by the Akeidas Yitzchak, over 500 years ago!

           Pinchus' act was a "Kidush Hashem," performed according to ethical standards and guided by legal protocol. It brought about order, unity and peaceful co-existence.

(c) Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Genesis, '97



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