Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Natural Act or Master of Emotions?
"And Pinchas arose and executed judgement, and the plague was halted. It
was ascribed to him as charity for all generations forever."
Why does scripture describe Pinchas' vengeful act as one of "tzedakah,"
usually translated as charity?
Although Pinchas' killing of the sinners eventually receives Heavenly
approval, it seems that in the period immediately following he was the
subject of substantial criticism. "Have you seen this man - grandson of one
who fattened calves for pagan worship - who all of a sudden has the
audacity to kill a Jewish tribal prince?! (see Rashi)" Pinchas was, on his
mother's side, a grandson of Yisro, who at one point in his life (before
becoming Moshe's father-in-law and converting to Judaism) had "tried every
single type of pagan worship that existed." There were those, it seems, who
attributed Pinchas' violent vengeance to his "crass" background. The
implication: A pure frum-from-birth Jew, descended from Avraham, Yitzchak
and Yaakov, could never commit such an act!
The Torah's answer to this criticism, says Rashi, is: "Pinchas, son of
Elazar, son of Aaron the Cohen (the first verse in this week's parsha)." By
attributing his lineage to Aaron, the Torah is reminding us that although
he was indeed a grandson of Yisro, he was also a grandson of Aaron, lover
of peace, for whom such an act would not come naturally (Rashi). It would
appear, however, that their criticism has not been fully addressed. They
knew all along that Aaron was also his grandfather, yet claimed that only
one with some "dirty blood" - and not a pure Jew - could be capable of such
Let's take a closer look at the above verse from Tehillim: "And Pinchas
arose and executed judgement (va-ye'fallel)." The Hebrew root for executing
judgement is peh-lamed-lamed. The word tefilah, prayer, stems from the same
root. What is the relationship between prayer and judgement, and why is
Pinchas' act described in these terms?
The root peh-lamed-lamed, to judge, also means to differentiate, to
clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumour,
valid opinions from wild speculation, fact from fancy. The exercise of such
judgement is called pe'lila. Indeed, pe'lilim - a court of law, derives
from the same root (see Shemos/Exodus 21:22). And what is the function of a
court if not to sift evidence and render a clear decision? A related root
is the word peh-lamed-heh (peleh), meaning to make a clear separation
between two things. Thus, prayer is called tefilah because it is the soul's
yearning to separate the chafe from the fruit - to define what truly
matters, and to separate that from the trivialities of life that often
masquerade as essential. (Siddur Avodas Ha-lev)
This answers a question which has often been asked: What is the need for
prayer? Doesn't Hashem know our needs without being reminded? Of course He
does - He knows them far better than we do. If prayer's sole function were
to inform Hashem of our desires and deficiencies, it would be superfluous.
Its true purpose is to elevate the supplicants by giving them time to
meditate over their priorities in life, and develop true perceptions,
thereby becoming worthy of Heavenly blessing.
This is the function of tefilah - the "decision-making" process of prayer.
Prayer is a process of self-evaluation and self-judgement (that's why it's
a reflexive verb). A process of removing oneself from the tumult of life -
and from one's own, sometimes jaded, perceptions and opinions - to a little
corner of truth, and refastening one's bonds with the Almighty, and with
life's true purpose. (Based on An Overview/Prayer, a Timeless Need by R'
Nosson Scherman shlita)
Ostensibly, what Pinchas did by killing Zimri and Kozbi was an act of
judgement. He needed to set aside his natural inclination towards peace and
civility, and, for Hashem's sake, commit a most brutal and unmerciful act.
Others claimed, however, that this was not the case at all. Pinchas' act,
they said, came perfectly naturally to him - from he who stems from such
unrefined lineage. Their assertion was that all Pinchas did was to reveal
his natural tendency to violence and ferocity, and as such he was deserving
of no accolades. Perhaps, indeed, he should be censured for his audacity...
By attributing his lineage to Aaron, the Torah dispels their claims.
Pinchas was no zealot. He was a grandson of Aaron, who so loved peace and
harmony that he couldn't bear to see two Jews fighting. In killing the
sinners, Pinchas was not revealing his violent and untamed nature, but
rather committing an act of pe'lila - separating what he might like to do
from what must be done, and acting on that knowledge.
Perhaps this is why Psalms uses the term va-ye'falel - and he executed
judgement. Like tefilah, where we separate truth from fancy, Pinchas had to
remove himself from his own gentle nature in order to perform an act of
brutality and vengeance.
Tzedakah, charity, plays a similar role. Man by nature tends to hoard that
which he has earned. "What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours." He is
attached to his possessions, and it does not come naturally to simply give
them away, receiving nothing in exchange. The mitzvah of tzedakah commands
us to remove ourselves from our personal attachment to our money and
possessions, and separate a portion for those less fortunate than us.
Perhaps it is for this reason that the verse declares, "It was ascribed to
him as charity," for in removing himself from his peace-loving nature,
Pinchas was doing an act akin to tzedakah.
The Gaon of Vilna, R' Eliyahu zt"l, explains the connection to tzedakah as
follows: The word "machtzis/half" of the "machtzis ha-shekel/half-shekel"
given by every Jew (see parshas Ki Sisa) is spelled in Hebrew as mem-
ches-tzaddik-yud-sav. The middle letter is tzaddik, from the same root as
tzedakah. Surrounding it are ches-yud, or chai - life! On the outside are
mem-sav - or meis/death. This teaches us, says the Gaon, that by giving the
half-shekel, i.e. tzedakah, we are close to life and distant from death.
Pinchas "removed My anger from the Children of Israel." The word "My
anger," in Hebrew chamasi, is spelled ches-mem-sav-yud - chai (life) is on
the outside, and meis (death) is on the inside. Pinchas "turned around"
(heishiv - to revoke, remove, or turn around) the word chamasi so that the
Jews, who were dying in a vicious plague, should once again be close to
life and distant from death. Thus, says the Gaon, it is readily understood
why Psalms likens his deed to that of tzedakah, inasmuch as both have the
identical effect - they bring us close to life and distant from death!
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by
Mr. George Isaac, in memory of his mother,
Pinia bas R' Eliezer ob"m, whose Yortzeit is 27 Tamuz
(5762). And in memory of his father, R' Moshe Yehuda ben R'
Text Copyright © 2003 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.