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Torah Attitude: Parashas Pinchas: Killing for peace


Bilam devised a plan to lure the Jewish men to commit acts of immorality. Pinchas, a true zealot, speared Zimri and the Moabite woman in his tent. The Torah traces the lineage of Pinchas to Aaron to teach that there were no murderous genes in his blood. No one loved peace more than Aaron the High Priest. There are two ways to pursue peace: one is to run after it; the other is to push away what appears to be peace when necessary. True peace is only possible where the participants all have good intentions. G’d rewarded Pinchas by making him a Kohen and by granting him the covenant of peace. To avoid immorality our Sages instituted “fences” to protect us from future lapses. The Torah commands us to judge people favourably and to give others the benefit of the doubt. An evil person we always judge with suspicion.


In last week’s Torah portion, we learned about the evil Bilam and his three failed attempts to curse the Jewish people. Despite his failure, Bilam’s hatred for the Jewish people was so strong that he stubbornly persisted until he managed to disrupt the holy relationship between G’d and the Jewish people. He looked for a way to entice the Jewish people to act immorally. He knew that no matter how strong the relationship, G’d would never tolerate blatant acts of immorality. So Bilam devised a plan where the Moabites set up a marketplace near the camp of the Jewish people. There were stalls in front of tents where all kinds of goods were offered for sale. They knew that the holiness of the Jewish people would never allow them to come even close to immorality, so on the outside of each stall sat elderly women, respectfully clothed. However, when the Jewish men approached to view the goods for sale, the elderly women told them that better quality goods for lower prices were being sold inside. When the unsuspecting men entered the tents, they were given unlimited samples of wine, and many soon became drunk. All of a sudden, voluptuous women appeared from their hiding places and the defenseless men succumbed and committed acts of immorality. They even were tricked to stoop so low as to serve Moabite idols.

The zealot Pinchas

Like sheep in a flock, one Jewish man after another began to indulge in baseless acts of immorality. The situation became so barbaric that Zimri, son of Salu, one of the leaders of the tribe of Simeon, committed acts of immorality in his tent with one of the Moabite women, within the sight of Moses and the entire assembly of the Jewish people. The only one to stand up against this abomination was Pinchas, son of Eliazar, grandson of Aaron, the High Priest. The Oral Torah provides that if a Jewish man has a sexual relationship with a gentile woman, a zealot should kill them both (Sanhedrin 82b). Everyone had forgotten this law. Pinchas was the only one who reacted. As a true zealot, he grabbed a spear and killed them.

Crowd reaction

Initially, the Jewish people reacted with anger towards Pinchas. They caste aspersions on his motives. They said, “Have you seen this Pinchas, whose grandfather fattened calves for idol worship. How dare he kill one of the leaders of a tribe of Israel, when his own family worshipped idols” (Sanhedrin 82b). But the Talmud vindicates Pinchas and says that the Torah traces his lineage to Aaron. This teaches us that there were no murderous genes in his blood. On the contrary, he had the purest of motives, as befitting a descendant of Aaron.

Aaron, lover of peace

Our Sages tell us that no one loved peace more than Aaron, the High Priest. As they say, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them closer to Torah (Perkei Avot 1:12). Pinchas followed in his grandfather’s footsteps. The regular way to pursue peace is to run and make peace between people. Our Sages relate how Aaron united estranged spouses and mended friendships that had broken down by telling each of them how much one loved the other and was saddened by the schism that separated them. Sure enough, the next time they met, they embraced each other and peace was restored (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan 12:3).

No peace for the wicked

Another way to pursue real peace is to push what may appear to be peace away when necessary. Peace cannot be attained at any price. As it says, “There is no peace for the wicked” (Hoshea 48:22). True peace is only possible where the participants in the process all have good intentions. A participant who is evil or wicked cannot be trusted to pursue or maintain peace. Prime Minister Chamberlain was foolish to believe that he could pursue peace with the Nazis. Sometimes, like Pinchas, it is necessary to stand up and repel any evil person who threatens the true peace process.

Covenant of peace

In addition to the lineage of Pinchas, the Torah leaves no doubt that Pinchas had good intentions when he killed Zimri. The Torah expressly states that G’d rewarded Pinchas by making him a Kohen and by granting him the covenant of peace (Bamidbar 25:12-13). From the time that the Moabite women first seduced the unsuspecting Jewish men, a horrible plague inflicted the Jewish people. Thousands upon thousands of Jews died from this plague. But when Pinchas killed Zimri, the plague immediately ceased. Peace was restored after the zealot publicly destroyed the evil.


To avoid immorality, like this unfortunate part of Jewish history, our Sages instituted “fences” to protect us from future lapses. Jewish people are prohibited from drinking wine that has been touched by gentiles. In addition, there are restrictions on eating bread made by gentiles. To prohibit any interaction with gentiles would be absurd and unenforceable. However, our Sages made these “fences” to remind us not to let our guard down to be lured into acts of immorality and intermarriage in general.

Benefit of the doubt

The Torah commands us to judge people favourably and to give others the benefit of the doubt (Vayikra 19:15). The Jewish people were mistaken to react negatively when Pinchas acted zealously. The Chofetz Chaim explains that if the conduct of a G’d fearing person at first appears to be wrong, we must give that person the benefit of the doubt. We must assume that the righteous know what they are doing, even if appearances are deceiving. On the other hand, we must not give the benefit of the doubt to an evil person. We must assume that the wicked are pursuing a course of conduct for improper motives. In other words, the righteous, such as Moses, we always judge favourably. The wicked, such as Bilam, we always judge with suspicion. Since Pinchas was a G’d fearing person, the Jewish people should have assumed that his motives were proper. They should have given him the benefit of the doubt even though his zealot act of killing two people was startling. To this end, the Torah makes it very clear that Pinchas was right.

Judging the righteous

In our daily lives, we encounter many different people. It is important for us to know how to judge each one. Says the Chofetz Chaim, if we know little or nothing about a person, we are obligated to give them the benefit of the doubt. People who are known to be G’d fearing, we must judge favourably, even in circumstances which might suggest otherwise. With people who are evil, we must be suspicious and judge them negatively. We must not be fooled by their devious methods. In this way, we will be able to associate and have good relationships with the righteous and weed out the wicked.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel