Parashat Pinchas: the meaning of compassion
by Daniel Pinner
This has been a difficult week, a depressing week, a demoralising week. We have a general rule that no reading ends on a depressing note. This is the reason that when, in public reading, we conclude the Books of Isaiah (Haftarah of Shabbat Rosh Chodesh), Malachi (Haftarah of Shabbat HaGadol), Lamentations (on the 9th of Av), and Ecclesiastes (on Shabbat of Chol ha-Mo’ed Sukkot), we always repeat the penultimate verse of each of these Books: each of them ends with a negative idea, so we repeat the previous verse in order to conclude with a more pleasant theme.
But last week’s Parashah breaks that rule: Parashat Balak concludes with the words, “And those [Jews] who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand” (Numbers 25:9). This final verse, the death of 24,000 Jews – equivalent to two days in Auschwitz– has been reverberating in our ears since last Shabbat morning.
This has been a gloomy week on other levels too. Last Tuesday was the 17th of Tammuz, commemorating Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army’s breaching of the walls of Jerusalem in the year 3338 (422 B.C.E.) and the Romans’ breaching of the walls of Jerusalem almost half a millennium later. Thus begin the Three Weeks of mourning.
This year, the 17th of Tammuz was particularly depressing, as the Knesset approved the first reading of a bill legalising Bedouin land theft in the Negev, effectively surrendering Israeli sovereignty to an openly hostile Arab nationalist programme of colonisation in Israel.
And then this Shabbat comes Parashat Pinchas. By killing the Jewish prince Zimri son of Salu and his Midianite paramour, the princess Cozbi daughter of Zur, Pinchas stopped the plague – with which last week’s Parashah concluded and which killed 24,000 Jews – from spreading.
The Ohr ha-Chayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, Morocco and Israel, 1696-1743) gives a very clear perspective on the opening words of the Parashah.“Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohen has turned back My fury from upon the Children of Israel by being zealous for My zealousness in their midst, so I did not exterminate the Children of Israel in My zealousness. Therefore say: I hereby give him My covenant of peace” (Numbers25:10-12).
The Ohr ha-Chayim addresses the phrase “Therefore say: I hereby give him My covenant…”, and asks just who was commanded to say what to whom and why. “Apparently He intended hereby that [Moshe] should tell Israel of what transpired, in order that they acknowledge the beneficence that Pinchas had wrought for them, and they would not hate him for having killed a national leader…” (commentary to verse 10).
The Ohr ha-Chayim continues: “‘…turned back My fury’ – the purpose of informing them of this may be so they would not think that Hashem turned back His fury without anyone earning this merit t oovercome the attribute of justice, and Moshe might thereby have drawn the conclusion that Hashem [habitually] acts this way. Therefore Hashem informed him that it was Pinchas who was the reason for Hashem’s fury being turned back…” (commentary to verse 11).
Indeed, had God Himself not have informed them, the Children of Israel could not have been aware that they owed their very survival to this hot-headed zealot who took it upon himself to kill a national leader who was publicly collaborating with an enemy leader. Of course Pinchas would then have been widely hated and excoriated as a murderer.
Yes – Israel’s guidance and lessons and moral instruction really needed to be ratified by God Himself. It was notsufficient that Pinchas was vindicated (retroactively) for killing Zimri and Cozbi; that justification had to be visible to all. God had to instruct Moshe:“Therefore say: I hereby give him My covenant of peace” – say to all the Children of Israel (following the Ohr ha-Chayim), so that all will know that he was justified.
The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) in his commentary here says similarly: “He [God] commanded [Moshe] to inform Israel that he [Pinchas] is a Kohen for eternity; the meaning of ‘therefore say..’ is that he had to proclaim this in Israel”.
The Targum Yonatan has a very different interpretation, which nevertheless agrees that God had to sanctify Pinchas and his actions in public. According to Targum Yonatan, God told Moshe:“Swear to him [Pinchas] in My Name: I hereby decree My covenant of peace with him, and I will make him a messenger who will live and endure forever, who will herald the redemption at the End of Days”.
There can be no greater and more public ratification of Pinchas than appointing him to “herald the redemption at the End of Days”. This, of course, is another way of expressing the idea that Pinchas is Eliyahu (Elijah), the prophet who will herald the Mashiach (Malachi3:23-24); the identification of Pinchas with Eliyahu is a recurrent theme (see Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 771; Zohar, Volume 2, Ki Tissa 190a; Targum Yonatan, Exodus 6:18).
The meaning of the name Pinchas is uncertain. A simple reading suggests “pi nachash”, “the mouth of the snake”, or maybe “pi nechoshet”, “mouth of brass” – denoting one who speaks fearlessly.
Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888), commenting on Numbers 25:11, notes that the “yud”in this particular occurrence of the name Pinchas is written smaller than the other letters (in Masoretic nomenclature, “yud ze’ira”), and suggeststhat maybe his name was originally written without the “yud” (compare 1Samuel 1:3), but the “yud” was added after his energetic stepping forward.Rabbi Hirsch relates “nun-chet-samech” (the second half of “Pinchas”) to the root “nun-chet-tzaddi”, “nachatz”, meaning to urge on. Hence Pinchas connotes “my mouth, the mouth of God, urged me to do it”. (Maybe Rabbi Hirsch reads “peh-yud” both as “pi”, “my mouth”, and also “peh-Yud”,“the mouth of Hashem.)
I suggest an alternative meaning of the name Pinchas:
As we already noted, last week’s Parashah ended with 24,000 Jews dying in the plague before Pinchas stopped the plague by killing Zimri and Cozbi. The nation numbered about 600,000 men (Numbers 26:51), so assuming a similar number of women the overall adult Jewish population was about 1,200,000. When Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, he therefore saved the lives of 1,200,000 Jews.
Hence Pinchas connotes “pi nunchas” – “he had compassion on 50 times as many”: 24,000 Jews died in the plague, but 50 times as many – 1,200,000 Jews – survived thanks to Pinchas.
I find support for this in the Ramban’s commentary to Numbers 25:12: “God informed Moshe that He would pay a goodly reward to Pinchas for his zeal in being zealous for his God, and for the tzedaka (‘righteousness, justice’) that he had done with Israel by atoning for them, so that they did not all die in the plague”.
In this specific instance,killing Zimri and Cozbi was the greatest compassion and the greatest justice. For sure, had Pinchas asked a Beit Din (a halachic court) if he could kill them ,the court would have forbidden him; Pinchas could only be justified in killing Zimri and Cozbi in the heat of righteous wrath, only in the heat of the moment, only at the instant of the sin (Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Relationships 12:5; Aruch ha-Shulchan, Even ha-Ezer 16:5).
And had Zimri killed Pinchas he would have been exonerated in court, because when Pinchas was coming after Zimri to kill him, Zimri had the right to self-defence (Sanhedrin 82a; Minchat Chinuch, Mitzvah #296; Rambam, Laws of Forbidden Relationships 12:5; Aruch ha-Shulchan, Choshen Mishpat 425:11).
Pinchas knew that by killing a Jewish national leader and a Midianite national leader he was risking his life. And he also knew that under these specific circumstances, this was the greatest compassion possible on the entire Jewish nation. And because he risked his life for the sake of God and the nation, God rewarded him with His covenant of eternal peace.