A Single, Eternal Moment
On one hand, the story of Pinchas is straightforward. There was a crisis in
the Jewish people, and Pinchas responded to the call, which, given the
solution, was not an easy thing to do. He was not a killer, and certainly
not one to seek attention. It is very hard for the average person to spill
blood, even that of an enemy, so how much more so that of a fellow Jew who
happened to be a leader as well. Pinchas really had to push himself to carry
through regarding a very difficult halachah that could have had very dire
consequences for him:
Had Zimri separated from his mistress and Pinchas had killed him, Pinchas
would have been executed on this account. And, had Zimri turned upon Pinchas
and killed him [in self-defense], he would not have been executed, since
Pinchas was a pursuer.” (Sanhedrin 82a)
On the other hand, there are many details to the entire story that make it
less straightforward. For example, where did this crisis come from in the
first place? Just after Bilaam was forced to praise the Jewish people for
their modesty, how did they go out and act so indecently? After Bilaam was
compelled to admit the Jewish nation has only one God, how did they end up
Furthermore, who is this Pinchas character, and where did he come from,
aside from his genealogy which the Torah provides? Why was he the one, out
of all the great people around, to save the day and be rewarded so fully?
Where was Moshe Rabbeinu all of this time, and why didn’t he respond to the
crisis on behalf of the Jewish nation?
The answer to this question will come at the end of a short intellectual
journey that begins with a story, a true story from the annals of baseball.
It is a story about how a single, seemingly innocuous moment can, without
much warning, dramatically transform one’s life forever.
Thousands of fans turned their frustration and angst into a concentrated
beam of hatred. That hate was placed on one man who did what any other fan
in his position would. It’s time to move on, time to forgive and time for an
apology. We all remember the initial reaction that took place as Moises Alou
attempted to reel in a foul ball for a pivotal out. The Cubs left fielder
maniacally threw his arms down, making the thousands in attendance aware
that something tremendous had just occurred.
Mark Prior was in the middle of a 3-0 shutout. He had Juan Pierre at second
and Luis Castillo in the box. The Cubs were just five outs away from the
World Series, a place they had not reached since 1945. Castillo fouled off a
pitch down the left field line. Alou gave chase, leaped into the stands and
came down with nothing but frustration.
Little by little, decades of baseball frustration began to boil over.
Expletives began to fly towards the area that Steve Bartman, a fan that
deflected the foul ball, was sitting. The game that started to unravel was
being blamed on a fan dressed in nothing but Cubs gear, wearing headphones
so that he could hear the home-team play-by-play. On any other day, a
passerby might say, now that is a real fan. Once expletives failed to get
their point across, beer began raining in on Bartman, a man who would live
in infamy after the Cubs’ loss.
Imagine loving something so much, only to see it tear your life to
smithereens. Bartman was enjoying something magical that night. His team was
on their way to the promised land. Moments later, they were ousted and he
was being blamed for the whole thing. You can sense the sorrow he felt
reading his statement from 2003: “There are few words to describe how awful
I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours. I’ve been a
Cub fan all my life and fully understand the relationship between my actions
and the outcome of the game. I had my eyes glued on the approaching ball the
entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see
Moises Alou, much less that he may have had a play. Had I thought for one
second that the ball was playable or had I seen Alou approaching I would
have done whatever I could to get out of the way and give Alou a chance to
make the catch. To Moises Alou, the Chicago Cubs organization, Ron Santo,
Ernie Banks, and Cub fans everywhere I am so truly sorry from the bottom of
this Cubs fan’s broken heart. I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the
negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and
myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to
being National League champs.” For Bartman, there is no retribution or
apology from fans. The nameless mob that ruined his life will never give him
back his anonymity. The 2003 Cubs and Bartman will be inextricably linked,
and that is downright unfair. Bartman did what any jubilant fan would have
done. I have seen the same exuberant reach for a foul ball hundreds of times
since that night. It's time to give Bartman back his life. The man was only
guilty of loving his team more than most. (Bleacher Report, Gabe Zaldivar,
September 27, 2011)
Until last week, I knew about none of this, and certainly had never heard
the name Steve Bartman before. As Divine Providence would have it, I just
happened to be waiting for someone in a place (in Toronto) where this story
was being told, and I was totally taken aback by the fallout of the event.
I don’t know how many people viewed it the way I did, but for me, it was
such an incredible lesson about life, especially in time for this week’s
I imagine Steve Bartman starting out his day like any other, except that he
was probably excited about going to the game that might clinch a spot for
his beloved team in the World Series, after so many tries. His whole day
probably revolved around going to the event, which he assumed, win or lose,
would have little long-term impact on his life. Why should he have thought
Nor did the people he attended the game with ever assume that their friend
would become Public Enemy #1 later that day. Why should they have? How many
times had they gone to watch a baseball game together, and come home with
little to report but the score itself? What are the odds of what happened to
Steve Bartman that fateful day happening to anyone? Very, very few,
especially given all the nice things people who knew him had to say in his
I do not know why what happened to Steve Bartman actually happened to him.
He seemed like a nice enough guy. However, I do know why such things happen
to people like Pinchas, and Bilaam for that matter. The single moments that
transformed their lives so dramatically, and so eternally, were actually
backed-up by trillions of moments that literally shaped their lives and gave
The Midrash says:
“They were crying at the opening of the Appointed Tent” (Bamidbar 25:6):
Their hands became weakened at that moment . . . They cried?! Did [Moshe]
not stand up against 600,000 [at the time of the golden calf], as it says,
“He took the calf which they had made” (Shemos 32:20), [and yet you say
that] his hands were weakened?! Rather, [Moshe was made to forget the law]
in order for Pinchas to take that which he deserved. (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:24)
What does it mean, “to take that which he deserved”? When? All of his life.
Where? Everywhere he performed a mitzvah. How? But zealously fulfilling the
will of God like it was his own. Likewise, Bilaam got what he deserved.
When? All of his short life. Where? Every time he either cursed or blessed
someone. How? By making sure that everything he did was for his own benefit.
I recall how, during the week of my Sheva Brochos at one of the meals, one
of my relatives choked on a fish bone and could not breath. As all of us sat
there stunned and ready to panic, one gentlemen, sitting on the other side
of the table of the choking person, calmly put one foot on a chair, the next
foot on the table, before stepping down behind the person and applying the
Heimlick Maneuver and dislodging the bone.
Since everyone was well, the festivities continued, but the event left an
indelible mark on me. I remember how time seemed to stand still as I watched
the hero step over the table and save the person’s life. But, more
importantly, I remember the tremendous feeling of inadequacy I had felt at
the time, not knowing what to do save a person’s life in such a situation. I
had been totally unprepared for such a crisis.
It is no coincidence that people who know CPR often find themselves in
situations that take advantage of their skill. It is no coincidence that
people with wisdom find themselves in situations that require it. And, it is
no coincidence that people who are zealous for God find themselves in
situations that prove their zealousness, or that people with shady pasts end
up in scandals. If indirect Divine Providence doesn’t arrange it, then God
Hence, the rabbis point out that Pirkei Avos, which deals with character
refinement, is in the section of technical and dry laws that deal with
damages of all types. This is their way of teaching that damages, even
accidental ones, are the result of an inappropriate lack of concern for the
well-being of others, and if the carelessness itself doesn’t result in doing
damage, then Divine Providence will create a moment that will allow it to do so.
Hence, though Bilaam saw modesty when he looked down into the Jewish camp,
what he could not see was the potential for indecency amongst some of the
nation. However, given the right circumstance, as Bilaam advised Balak, that
would quickly become exposed and result in both chaos and Divine wrath. When
Zimri’s moment came around, a lifetime of incorrect thinking made him famous
for the wrong reasons.
The same was true for Bilaam. He was handed an incredible moment, one which
could have left him with a good name forever. He knew that God intended to
bless the Jewish nation, and he had the opportunity to be the mouth through
whom God would do it. However, a lifetime of selfish behavior denied him the
spiritual fortitude to rise to the occasion, and instead, he went down in
In contrast to all of this, Pinchas used his single moment to become a hero.
A lifetime of self-work and character refinement allowed him to take
advantage of his single moment to become a savior of the Jewish people, and
a favorite of God. It even earned him the right to become Eliyahu HaNavi,
who will herald the Final Redemption. An entire lifetime summed up in a
single, eternal moment. It is, perhaps, the most important lesson about life.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.