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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 Midianite princess 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. This week we have entered the three weeks of mourning. We face today the same challenges as our Patriarch Jacob. We beg G'd to protect us from the "Esaus" that surround us and endanger our lives.


In last week's Parasha we read about Bilam and his three failed attempts to curse the Jewish people. In his great hatred for the Jewish people, Bilam persisted until he managed to disrupt the holy relationship between G'd and the Jewish people. He knew that no matter how strong the relationship, G'd would never tolerate acts of immorality. He therefore devised a plan for the Moabites to 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. Bilam 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 they had better quality goods for lower prices 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 the Moabite idols.

The zealot Pinchas

Like sheep following each other, the Jewish men indulged in baseless acts of immorality. The situation became so barbaric that Zimri, son of Salu, one of the leaders of the tribe of Simeon, publically took a Midianite princess into his tent and committed an act of immorality. The only one to stand up against this abomination was Pinchas, son of Eliazar, grandson of Aaron, the Kohein Gadol (High Priest). The Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) teaches that if a Jewish man has an intimate relationship with a gentile woman, a zealot should kill them both. Everyone had forgotten what to do. Pinchas said to Moses, you taught us that a zealot shall kill them. Said Moses, since you remembered the law you shall go ahead and enforce it. As a true zealot, Pinchas grabbed a spear, went into the tent and killed them.

Crowd reaction

The Talmud (ibid) relates how the Jewish people were angry with Pinchas. They cast 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". However, the Talmud vindicates Pinchas and says that the Torah traces his lineage to Aaron. This, says the Talmud, 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

The Mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (1:12), "Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them closer to Torah. Pinchas followed in his grandfather's footsteps. However, there are two ways to pursue something: one can pursue it like ones pursues a friendship, or one can pursue it like one pursues an enemy. The regular way to pursue peace is to run and make peace between people. Our Sages relate how Aaron united estranged spouses and mended broken friendships. He would tell each of them how much the other one loved him and was saddened by the schism that separated them. Sure enough, the next time they met, they embraced each other and peace was restored (see Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 12:3).

No peace for the wicked

Sometimes in order to pursue real peace one must pursue what may appear to be peace and push it away. Peace cannot be attained at any price. As the Prophet Hoshea (48:22) says, "There is no peace for the wicked". True peace is only possible when both parties are honest and have good intentions. This is the problem in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not the first time in history when one side could not be trusted to pursue or maintain peace. Prime Minister Chamberlain was foolish to believe that he could pursue peace with the Nazis. Sometimes, it is necessary to stand up, like Pinchas, and repel the party who threatens the true peace process.

Covenant of peace

However, when the holiness of the Jewish people is at stake only a true zealot, who is totally above having any personal agenda, will merit the Divine assistance to restore peace. The Torah leaves no doubt that Pinchas had no personal agenda when he killed Zimri. As proof of this, the Torah expressly states that G'd rewarded Pinchas by making him a Kohen and by granting him the covenant of peace (see Bamidbar 25:12-13). From the time that the Moabite women started to seduce the unsuspecting Jewish men, a horrible plague inflicted the Jewish people. Thousands of Jews died from this plague. But when Pinchas killed Zimri, the plague immediately ceased. For the holiness of the Jewish people was restored, when this true zealot publicly destroyed the evil.


To protect us from future lapses of immorality our Sages instituted "fences". Since wine is the first step to immorality they prohibited drinking wine that has been touched by gentiles. However, any socializing can lead to immoral behavior. Therefore, our sages made certain restrictions on bread and other foods made by gentiles as well (see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Chapter 112-114 and 123). 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.

Three weeks of mourning

This week we have entered the three weeks of mourning. This is a time when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and bemoan our long and bitter exile. The Ramban writes in the beginning of Parashas Vayishlach that we must take a lesson from how our Patriarch Jacob prepared himself before his encounter with Esau. For he, says the Ramban, set an example how we shall conduct ourselves throughout our dispersion among Esau's descendants, the nations of the world. One of Jacob's preparations was to pray to G'd and ask for His assistance. Jacob said (Bereishis 32:12): "Please save me from the hand of my brother from the hand of Esau." Rabbi Yosef Baer Soloveitchik (known as the Beis Halevi) asks why Jacob used the double expression "from the hand of my brother from the hand of Esau." He answers that Jacob knew that one of two things would happen. Either Esau would come and fight him, or he would be appeased and would want to live together with Jacob. Jacob was equally scared of both options. On the one hand, he feared what would happen in case of war. On the other hand, he was afraid of the influence Esau would have on his family if they lived together in close proximity.

Same challenges today

These are the same challenges we face today. On the one hand, we are surrounded by our enemies in the land of Israel and anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe and worldwide. On the other hand, we live in countries that enable us to socialize and mix with the gentile population, resulting in assimilation and intermarriage in huge numbers. Add to this the threat from hundreds of missionaries.

Save us from the "Esaus"

As we mourn during these three weeks, these are the concerns we have to think about. Just like our Patriarch, we pray to G'd to save us from our "brothers" who open their educational and social halls to our youth and cause assimilation. At the same time, we beg G'd to protect us from the "Esaus" that surround us and endanger our lives. The only real solution to these problems is that G'd send Moshiach and bring peace to the Jewish people and the whole world. Amen.

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

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

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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