> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

Lover of Peace or Fanatic?

Pinchas (Numbers 25:10-30:1 )


At the conclusion of last week's Torah portion, we read about the act of Zimri and the response of Pinchas. The episode is described as follows:

And a man from the Children of Israel brought a Midianite woman in front of his brethren, in sight of Moses and the entire community, and they engaged in sexual intercourse in front of the Tent of Meeting. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, saw them. He arose from the community and took his spear with him. He approached the man of Israel by the tent and he pierced them both by the tent. The plague in Israel was stopped. (Numbers 25:6-8)

While the story was told last week, in Balak, certain elements about the episode are held in abeyance until this week's Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas. Named for the protagonist of this episode, it informs us of the lineage of the perpetrators of the deed:

The name of the man of Israel who was killed, together with the Midianite woman, was Zimri son of Saluah, a prince from the tribe of Shimon. And the name of the Midianite woman killed was Kozbi, the daughter of Tzur, the head of the nation of Midian. (Numbers 25:14-15)

These were not simple people; both were aristocrats, from leading families of their respective tribes. Rashi points to this fact as an indication of the Midianite's burning hatred for the Children of Israel – they were willing to send their own daughters into the fray.

The Targum (Yonatan, Yerushami) identifies Tzur with none other than Balak himself! His hatred was so profound that he was willing to prostitute his own daughter for the chance to corrupt the Jews in the process.

Pinchas acts in what the Torah describes as a "fanatical" rage and kills them both.

Pinchas, upon viewing this scene, acts in what the Torah describes as a "fanatical" rage, and kills them both in order to put an end to the desecration.

The act of Pinchas is the archtypical fanatical act; others in the future who acted in a similar manner have been associated with Pinchas. Most notably, Elijah the Prophet is identified by the Sages as Pinchas himself, if not literally, then at least in the mystical sense, whereby the two would be said to share a common soul. (See Targum Yonatan Shmot 6:18.)


However, it is possible to view this episode as more than a fanatical outburst by Pinchas. Let us consider the other side – Kozbi and Zimri.

These people were both leaders in their own rights, in their own respective communities. Their "performance" followed the invasion of the idolatry of "Baal" into the Israelite camp. Once this foreign cultic practice made inroads, what followed was the orgiastic, public display of behavior, which in Jewish life is private, holy.

As we noted last week, one of the cultic rites in the worship of Baal was defecating in the presence of the deity, reflecting the exalted, "holy" status of nature in the worldview of Baal. Behavior, which indicated a reverence of nature and all things natural, were accepted practice.

Once this "philosophy" is understood, the act of Kozbi and Zimri, from their perspective, was not a "crime of passion" as it were, but the culmination of worship of Baal. Zimri was trying to make an ideological point. The text stresses that he performed his act in front of the "Tent of Meeting."

They engaged in sexual intercourse in front of the Tent of Meeting. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, saw them. He arose from the community and took his spear with him. He approached the man of Israel by the tent and he pierced them both by the tent. (Numbers 25:6-8)

Had this been an act of passion, surely the two of them would have slipped out of sight. But this was a public display, an act of rebellion, an act dictated by ideology – an act of fanaticism.

In a sense, Zimri is no less a fanatic than Pinchas.

They therefore chose the Tent of Meeting as the location for their tryst. The act of Zimri and Kozbi was premeditated. As leaders, they apparently had a well-thought-out plan of how to deliver the children of Israel from the holiness of the teachings of Moses, into the depravity of Baal.

In a sense, Zimri is no less a fanatic than Pinchas; they reflect different sides, very different directions. The fanaticism of Pinchas, and of Zimri, should come as no surprise, as it has an antecedent in Genesis, in another act of fanaticism and revenge.


In order to appreciate this connection we must first recall what we are told at the beginning of this week's Torah portion. Pinchas was the son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen. He was from the tribe of Levi. Zimri was son of Saluah, a prince from the tribe of Shimon. Shimon and Levi together again, as in the past:

Shimon and Levi are brothers. (Genesis 49:5)

They are united, joined by their rage and fanaticism. Jacob, on his deathbed, condemned this trait of theirs:

'Let their rage be cursed for it is powerful, and their wrath for it is harsh...' (Genesis 49:7)

What was it that Shimon and Levi did to evoke this response from their aged father? What was it that caused Jacob to leave his sons with this legacy? To answer these questions we must return to their youth.

Our forefather Jacob had a difficult life. He had a brother who was pining to kill him, a father-in law who abused him, and children who sold their brother into slavery. Jacob also had a daughter, Dina, who ventured out of the neighborhood, to see how the other half lived. There she was ensnared by Shchem the son of Chamor, who was smitten by her and who took her against her will.

In the aftermath, Chamor wanted to work things out, and the sons of Jacob advised him to circumcise his entire tribe, which he did. When the men of Shchem were at the apex of their pain, Shimon and Levi entered the town and killed them. Jacob was upset with his children, and rebuked them for putting him in such a precarious situation. By attacking such a large tribe, when Jacob and his children were so small in number, Shimon and Levi had placed the entire nation in danger of the vengeance of other neighboring tribes who might seek retribution.

Shimon and Levi answer:

'Will our sister be made into a prostitute?' (Genesis 34:31)

Jacob leaves that question hanging, without response, until his deathbed, when he curses their rage.

The episode of Dina and Shchem serves as an interesting parallel to the story of Zimri and Kozbi. Shchem is the son of the head of a tribe, Dina is the daughter of Jacob, also the leader of a people. In Parshat Vayetze Shimon and Levi interpret the violation in national terms, and attack the perpetrator of this atrocity. Their attack is ideological, yet motivated by anger, and may therefore be labeled an act of fanaticism.

Jacob, for his part, is far more pragmatic, and sees the situation in practical terms. Consequently, Jacob curses their anger, but he doesn't stop there:

'Let their rage be cursed for it is powerful, and their wrath for it is harsh; they shall be divided in Jacob and dispersed in Israel.' (Genesis 49:7)


Jacob wants that these two sons, and their descendants, be divided, for when they are united, their rage becomes obsessive and debilitating. (The conspiracy against Joseph was instigated by Shimon and Levi, Rashi Berieshit 49:6). Jacob therefore prays for their division.

Over the years, the descendants of Shimon and Levi take different directions. On a personal level, when Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Jewish slave, he rises up to defend the Jew, killing the Egyptian in the process, acting akin to his ancestor Levi. When the people worship the Golden Calf, Moses calls out:

'Whoever sides with God join me!' And the entire tribe of Levi gathered about. (Exodus 32:25)

Here we see a fanaticism on the part of Levi, but directed toward God, against those who had rebelled. In this instance, Shimon is silent.

Later on in history, other descendants of Levi, the Maccabbes, lead a rebellion against the Greek Empire. We can trace the strain of fanaticism in the tribe of Levi, but we must notice how differently this fanaticism manifests itself in the tribe of Shimon.

Most or all of the 24,000 killed by the plague were from the tribe of Shimon.

We see clearly that the rebellion led by Zimri was not the act of one man. Parshat Balak concludes with the plague that took 24,000 lives. In this week's Torah portion, the results of the census numbers the tribe of Shimon at 22,200 (Numbers 26:14). At the previous census, they numbered 59,300 (Numbers 1:23). We see that the largest negative differential was in the tribe of Shimon; apparently, most or all of the dead were from that tribe. Likewise, Rashi concludes:

From the number of people missing from the tribe compared to the previous counting in the Sinai Desert, it seems that all 24,000 died from the tribe of Shimon. (Rashi 26:13)

We may thus conclude that the act of Zimri was one which had support among the rank and file of his tribe. In other words, this was a rebellion against Moses and God, spearheaded by Zimri but followed by great numbers of the tribe of Shimon.


A stark and powerful contrast may be drawn. The entire tribe of Levi stands by Moses's side in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, ready to do all for God, while the entire tribe of Shimon stands at the side of Zimri.

When Pinchas took action against the fanaticism of Zimri, there were those who attacked him, calling his behavior unacceptable, "un-Jewish." They claimed that Pinchas must have inherited some foreign traits from his maternal grandfather Jethro.

The Midrash explains that our Torah portion introduces Pinchas as a descendant of Aaron, as if to attribute Pinchas' response to Aaron's behavior, and not to an alien, pagan source. Aaron, too, was from the tribe of Levi.

Perhaps the masses saw Aaron only as a lover of peace, and not as a passionate defender of truth. Aaron was a very sympathetic figure, and the people must have seen Pinchas's behavior as a radical departure from Aaron's. Moreover, the people must have reasoned that if Moses did not respond as Pinchas did, surely Pinchas' behavior must have been off the mark. After all, how could someone be more "religious" than Moses?

The people must have reasoned that if Moses did not respond, surely Pinchas was wrong to do so.

On his deathbed, Jacob attacked Shimon and Levi's anger; arguably, there is place for the behavior, but not when it is motivated by anger. So, too, is there an appropriate time and place for action of the sort that Pinchas took.

Jacob warned specifically against the merger of the two problematic tribes. While there may be a place for an individual's extra-legal response, when such action becomes the fusing point of two tribes, the danger of anger for its own sake, and the resultant fanaticism, is too great.

Once divided, the descendants of Levi become the prototypical servants of God, the Kohanim and Leviim, who would between them perform the Temple service.

Shimon, on the other hand, never succeeds in using anger in a positive manner.

Anger is a particularly dangerous trait. The sages compare it to idolatry, for when a person feels anger they lose control and are no longer serving God. Levi was able to control the anger, retaining a single-minded, extreme relationship with God. This complete dedication to the Divine is what allowed them to be Kohanim. At times this intensity of purpose manifested itself in the Temple, and at times it manifested itself on the battlefield, as with the Maccabees. The crucial point is the single-minded dedication to God. This trait, while being the domain of Levi, can be adopted by any Jew.

Maimonides in a celebrated passage, comments:

Not only the tribe of Levi, rather any man of the entire world whose spirit moves him, and causes him to separate and stand in front of God to serve Him and worship Him, in order to know God, and walks along a straight path as God has made him, and he rejects the numerous calculations which occupy most men, this person becomes sanctified – [he becomes] a Holy of Holies, and God will be his lot, his portion forever and ever ... (Rambam Mishna Torah Laws of Shmita and Yovel 13:12)

Any Jew can become the "Holy of Holies." What is needed is single-minded dedication to God, as was manifested by Pinchas. His love of God required his extreme response. The fanatical behavior of Zimri, which was followed by his tribe of Shimon, had to be stopped.


To be holy one cannot have personal agendas, as Zimri did. Perhaps Zimri deluded himself into believing that he was following the example of his great-grandfather Shimon. Pinchas, on the other hand, stood to gain nothing personally, quite the contrary. His action was ridiculed by the other leaders (Rashi 25:11).

Pinchas was motivated by a profound love of God, which would not give in to public opinion or political expediency. For this reason he was rewarded with the Covenant of Peace. The mandate of the kohanim is to bring peace to the world; sometimes this is accomplished by speaking words of peace, but at other times it is accomplished by force. The reward which Pinchas receives gives us insight into his motivation – he desperately wanted peace, but the obscenity unfolding before his eyes left him no choice.

We are reminded of Hillel's teaching:

You shall be like the students of Aharon: love peace and pursue peace. (Avot I:12)

Occasionally the pursuit of peace requires an unconventional display of love. The kohanim were imbued with love – love for God and their fellow man. The anger which Jacob cursed had been replaced by love. Therefore the tribe of Levi excelled.

On the other hand, the tribe of Shimon represented the greatest failure during the years spent in the desert. Witness to this is borne by Moses' final blessings to the tribes at the conclusion of Deuteronomy.

The conceptual and linguistic similarities to Jacob's blessings are numerous, but the most striking difference between the blessings lies in Moses' final words to Shimon and Levi.

To Levi, Moses gave a beautiful blessing:

Let thy Urim and Tumim be with thy pious ones ... (Deut. 33:8)

Levi is now called the "pious ones." Shimon, on the other hand, stands out as the only tribe to receive no blessing, no comment, from Moses – only silence. And it is a silence which speaks volumes.

This tribe's potential for greatness was not realized. Jacob's clairvoyance called for the separation of the tribes, and, indeed, they were separated, following two different paths to two different destinies.

The conflict of Zimri and Pinchas serves as a microcosm of this larger issue, of two tribes traveling in two different directions, one toward greatness, the other toward infamy.

Long ago, Ya'akov prayed for these two to be separated, in order for each to find their unique path to God. Levi found theirs; Shimon did not. We see in this week's Torah portion that two people, and indeed two tribes, can have the same make-up, the same characteristics, but achieving greatness is less a function of inborn traits than the use we make of those traits.


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