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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen turned back My wrath from upon the Bnei Yisrael. (25:2)

One would think that the people would venerate Pinchas, applauding him for turning back Hashem's wrath against a sinful nation. Twenty-four thousand Jews had already died as retribution for their immoral involvement with the Moavite and Midyanite girls. There would have been more deaths had Pinchas not acted decisively. His actions put an end to the plague that was devastating the Jewish People. Yet, there were no accolades, no parades, no gratitude - only an accusation of wanton murder. They did not consider Pinchas a righteous zealot; they viewed him as a murderer whose ancestry traced back to Yisro, the Midyanite Priest who fattened cows for idol worship. Pinchas was motivated to kill as a result of the genes he received from his maternal grandfather. Thus, the Torah details his lineage as far back as Aharon HaKohen, to relay a message: This was no act of murder; this was a holy act that purified and atoned for the nation's dreadful sin.

It is very difficult to accept that the nation was poking fun at Pinchas' lineage. This is not only halachically inappropriate; it is spiritually forbidden. It is the antithesis of moral rectitude. You simply do not make fun of someone's lineage. The tribes knew Pinchas as a decent, upright, G-d-fearing Jew. Clearly, they did not think that he had any motive other than l'shem Shomayim, for the sake of Heaven, behind his act. Horav Yechiel Weinberg, zl, posits that the people were certain that Pinchas thought he was acting l'shem Shomayim. They felt that Pinchas had convinced himself of that. In reality, however, it was the maternal grandfather from within who was having an overriding influence on him. One does not always perceive the underlying essence of his actions. He thinks - he even believes - that he is acting with spiritual integrity l'shem Shomayim, but he forgets where it all started. For example, one sustained an embarrassing experience, an experience that personally demeaned him. He must now turn it all around and do something that will elevate him from the depths, raise his self-esteem, return him to his original self. He undertakes an action that he would have otherwise ignored - all this only to assuage his ego, to revive his self-esteem. Yes, he is acting l'shem Shomayim, but why is he acting l'shem Shomayim? Even the l'shem Shomayim must be l'shem Shomayim!

This was the spiritual danger inherent in Pinchas' act of zealousness. His entire life was overshadowed with the taint of his maternal grandfather's search for religion. During his quest, he went through various transformations on his journey to find true faith. He achieved his goal, but he had accumulated much baggage enroute. Pinchas lived with this. He was waiting for the opportunity to arise in which he could demonstrate to himself and to the nation that he was made of the same cloth as they. He was not adversely affected by his maternal lineage. Suddenly, the opportunity materialized - when Zimri took an idolatress, a Midyanite. The scenario that presented itself was one that served Pinchas' needs. He could now redeem himself. He could prove to everyone that he was pure, committed, with no taint of idol worship lurking in his past. Pinchas had every reason to wipe clean the rumors by killing Zimri.

This is what the people feared. Was Pinchas acting l'shem Shomayim, or was this his way of declaring, "I am one of you. I abhor idolatry. My grandfather's religious journey has left no taint on me"? The Torah gives us the answer by underscoring his paternal yichus, lineage, to Aharon HaKohen. Everything that Pinchas did was on the up and up, acting l'shem Shomayim to sanctify Hashem's Name. B'kano es kinaasi, "When he zealously avenged Me." It was Hashem's vengeance - not Pinchas'.

It is so easy to delude oneself into thinking that his intentions are noble - especially if they are not. The yetzer hora, evil inclination, goes into overdrive in its attempt to present an aveirah, sin, as a mitzvah, or a personal vendetta as acting l'shem Shomayim. It is so difficult to introspect, to seek and confront the truth behind our actions. The risk we take by not introspecting can be devastating. If Pinchas' intentions had not been pure, his act of righteous zealousness would have been transformed into wanton murder. The divide between good and evil can often be quite narrow.

Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen turned back My wrath from upon the Bnei Yisrael. (25:2)

Horav Moshe Tzvi Nahariyah, zl, distinguishes between three forms of kanaus, zealousness. First is the extremist who is filled with hate, obsessed with negativity, an individual who finds it difficult to live within his own skin. This is an individual who, if not religious, would be a thief and even a murderer. Instead, he is officially observant, but takes out his unchannelled anger on anyone and everything. It is his binding commitment to the Torah that prevents him from carrying out his fantasies against his self-imposed enemies. This is not a kanai, zealot. This is a sick, wicked man who is obsessed with hate.

Next is the individual who is spiritually inclined. He gravitates to anything spiritual. He is intolerant of anything or anyone who does not conform to a life of kedushah, holiness. His kanaus is the by-product of the mixture of ascetism and an extreme closeness to Hashem. While his zealousness does have roots within the parameters of Torah thought, it does not reflect shleimus, perfection. He still dislikes those who are not exactly like him. This is not the kanaus which Hashem rewards with Brisi shalom, "My Covenant of peace." Nothing is peaceful about him.

The third form of kanaus is one that is inspired by a father's love for his errant son. If another boy would have acted in this manner, he would neither be hurt, nor would he react. It is because this is his son, whom he loves dearly that he is in pain and that he must react. His anger is the result of love. He is upset with the negative action that his son has committed. His love for his son, however, has not diminished. It remains the same, in full force.

Pinchas' kanaus was Kinaasi - "My [Hashem's] vengeance." He did not direct his anger at Klal Yisrael. On the contrary, he acted decisively because of his love for the Jewish People and his burning desire to prevent a breach in the nation's sheleimus, perfection. He acted zealously, so that Hashem would forgive the nation. Indeed, as soon as he raised up the spear, the pasuk in Tehillim 106:30 writes: Vayaamod Pinchas va'yipallel, "Pinchas stood in prayer," so that there should not be an outbreak of plague against the people. He prayed that his forthcoming action would have an atoning effect on Hashem's wrath. Pinchas acted with extreme mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice and dedication, for, if Zimri would have risen up to defend himself, thereby killing Pinchas, he would not have been held liable. This form of kanaus earned Pinchas the Kehunah.

Kanaus that sprouts from love is true kanaus. Interestingly, Pinchas was inducted into Kehunah as a direct result of his act of zealousness. This is in contradiction to the rules applying to the Bais HaMikdash and Kehunah. Any instrument of - and allusion to - bloodshed, including sharp steel utensils, is not permitted to be used. This encompasses even inanimate objects capable of staving blood, such as those used to cut the stones for the structure. In addition, how are we to understand Pinchas' ascension to the Priesthood when Halachah clearly states that a Kohen who has spilled blood inadvertently may no longer perform the Priestly service? Yet, Pinchas became a Kohen as a result of his committing bloodshed.

What defines murder? Is the surgeon's scalpel considered a weapon of bloodshed? One who spills blood may not serve as a Kohen. That is correct only if the act of spilling blood - however inadvertent - remains an act of spilling. It does not achieve. It does not save. It does not grant life. If, by virtue of this act of taking a life, one increases life, thereby atoning for thousands who would otherwise have died, it is not a typical instance of bloodshed.

Pinchas' act of taking Zimri's life was an act of love - for the Jewish People. Sometimes, a surgeon must cut out of love. If the malignancy is not expunged, the patient will die. Pinchas' kanaus was love at its zenith. A parent who must discipline does so out of love. He loves - he thinks - he acts. It is not inadvertent. It is purposeful, with love and aforethought. Pinchas did not become a Kohen until he killed Zimri. A Kohen must bless the nation b'ahavah - with love. It takes extreme love - such as the love of a father for a child - to discipline, even if it hurts. His act of kanaus was love at its zenith. This does not mean that the end justifies the means. It is just that the definition of the "means" has changed. It is not murder; it is true kanaus and, thus, no longer has a negative connotation.

The name of the slain Yisraelite man who was slain with the Midyanitess was Zimri ben Salu, leader of a father's house of Shimon. (25:14)

A major issue confronting Torah Judaism for years has been the question regarding the relaxation of certain stringencies so that we might be able to include more of our fellow Jews in the fold. We must face the reality that a large population of Jews have acculturated; others have totally assimilated and hardly recognize their Jewish roots. How do we bring them back? We must determine why they left in the first place. They sought acceptance, freedom; they wanted to be like everyone else. By releasing them from the fetters of a religion that was inflexible, the early secularists thought that they would be able to at least maintain them as cultural Jews. They succeeded in developing a stream of Jewish life whose relationship with the Torah is, at best, insipid, and a cultural race that is neither here nor there. What they forgot was that Judaism is a religion. Without Torah it is nothing. One who attempts to emulate the non-Jewish world has nothing. He has no religion, no culture, no future, only a past which he has shunned and is now attempting to remember.

I am sure that some of the early secularists probably had good, albeit misguided, intentions. They thought that by relaxing Halachah they could bring back those who have gravitated toward the allure of the outside world. How wrong they were. They exchanged their spiritual legacy for a bowl of red lentils. Horav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zl, posits that this idea was behind Zimri's folly.

Let us face it. Zimri was the distinguished prince of Shevet Shimon. His behavior with the Midyanitess was reprehensible. What provoked such flagrant disregard for morality? Where was his shame? To cohabit publicly with an idolatress is something that only someone of an extremely base character would do, swept by uncontrollable passion and devoid of all sense of shame. Zimri was not like that. Quite possibly, he was a lot of other things, but the above negative appellations did not apply to him. Why, then, did he make a public spectacle of himself?

Rav Yosef Chaim explains that we must first address what was problematic about the Jewish men straying after the Midyanite women. Was it simply a case of wanton promiscuity, or was there more to it? Rashi explains that the purpose of the immoral relationships was to lure the men into worshipping their gods. The women were but a means to ensnare the men into a greater and more definitive breach of their relationship with Hashem.

This concerned Zimri. As an individual who felt a strong responsibility for his tribe, he felt obliged to do something to counteract this scourge. If the Jewish men fell for the shiksas, non-Jewish women, the next step would be joining them in church, or whatever it was called then. Thus, for the good of the nation, Zimri felt that, rather than have the Jewish men chase the Midyanitess into their camp, Moshe Rabbeinu should instead welcome the shiksas into the Jewish camp! He might be uncomfortable with a flock of idolatress women setting up shop in the Jewish camp, but the alternative meant having the Jewish men moving in with the idolaters, a process that would lead to idolatry. Bringing the shiksas home was the lesser of the two evils - or so Zimri thought.

This pact with the devil frightened Pinchas, because he was acutely aware of where this would lead. Compromise in this case bespeaks weakness, thus inviting the devil to join us in our world. A compromise with idolaters is worse than having some Jewish men fall prey to the blandishments of the Midyanite women. The Torah camp may never be defiled. Those who choose to philander - let them go elsewhere, but the pristine nature of our moral code must never be impugned. The camp of Yisrael must retain its purity and sanctity. If this means that those whose base passions cannot reconcile with the Torah's moral code will leave - so be it!

We must be flexible in our approach to understanding what troubles those who choose to divorce themselves from the Torah camp. We must not, however, compromise one iota of our interpretation of Halachah as was transmitted to us throughout the generations. Understanding where they come from, the pathology which led to their alienation, the generations of self-loathing which was the background of their upbringing - are all important factors. This only makes us more amenable to reaching out to them. Our camp, however, must not become tainted with compromise to impress anyone.

Kanaus is a noble trait. It is, however, dangerous. Some kanaaim are fanatics. Once, in the course of a dispute concerning an important communal issue, a kanai accused Rav Yosef Chaim of being "soft". "The Rav used to be a zealot once, when his Rebbe, Horav Yehoshua Leib Diskin, was alive, but now it seems that he has mellowed."

Rav Yosef Chaim countered, "I was never a kanai. I was only following the dictates of my revered Rebbe. And, today, I continue to follow those dictates with the same determination!" Even in kanaus one needs a rebbe.

May Hashem, G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the Assembly…Hashem said to Moshe, "Take to yourself Yehoshua ben Nun, a man in whom there is spirit." (27:16,18)

Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to appoint his successor, and he intimated the criteria which he felt the nation needed in a leader. Rashi explains that, actually, Moshe had hoped that his own son could succeed him. Hashem stipulated otherwise: "Yehoshua was chosen because of his devotion in never leaving Moshe's tent. He was a student whose dedication to his teacher - and to the Torah that he learned from him - was exemplary. His allegiance would be rewarded. While there is no question that loyalty has its perks and dedication is to be lauded, do these traits qualify the individual to become a leader? A leader is one who can address all of the compelling issues confronting a nation of varied personalities. It is not a reward for good behavior. A leader must be a capable person whose outstanding qualities warrant his ascension to the position. It is not a prize to be granted.

Horav Gershon Liebman, zl, notes that when the Alter, zl, m'Novardok would select students to establish branches of the Yeshivah in towns throughout Russia, he chose those students who were outstanding in their devotion to him and to his approach to mussar, ethical character refinement. Thinking about it, it seems almost strange that someone should be chosen for a position of leadership based upon his adherence to his rebbe's derech, specific method, of learning and mussar. A leader should be first and foremost capable, someone who would garner the respect of the public, because he is head and shoulders above them. He must look and act the part. A nice guy who is a devoted student does not necessarily make the grade. Obviously, Yehoshua made the grade. He was totally capable of leading the Jewish People. As such, he was the perfect successor to Moshe, but the Torah does not say so. It seems that he warranted this position because, lo yamush mitoch ha'ohel, "he did not leave the tent." Apparently, the central quality required for leadership is devotion to the community he is to lead. His dedication must be first and foremost unequivocal. He must lead with temimus, simplicity and complete loyalty - no shtick, no personal interests - everything for the people. This is what is meant by "not leaving the tent." Yehoshua had one thing, and only one thing, on his mind: Klal Yisrael. His rebbe thought of nothing else; therefore, so neither did he.

Acting with temimus in today's vernacular means to act with transparency, sincerity, straightforwardness, and with total candor and innocence. The individual has no personal objectives. He follows orders to the letter. Pinchas acted in such a manner when he saw a flagrant disregard for the law. Risking his life, he acted accordingly. He was rewarded with the covenant of peace. Clearly, Pinchas expected no reward; certainly, not such an incredible one. When he acted, he did not even know if he would emerge alive. He did, because he acted with temimus.

This concept is alien to contemporary society in which guile, subterfuge and manipulation are a way of life. A Torah Jew lives his life with temimus, total belief in Hashem, Who will provide for him as He sees fit. One who places his faith in man will have to rely on man.

The Rosh Yeshivah notes that, in prayer, we speak to Hashem in first person. This is not considered chutzpah, because we have such a non-assuming, innocent relationship with the Almighty. We totally rely on Him for everything.

é May Hashem, G-d of the Spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the Assembly. (27:16)

Moshe Rabbeinu speaks to Hashem in a very direct tone, almost "ordering" Him to provide his successor. The leader of the nation is concerned lest the nation be bereft momentarily of its leadership. This seems enigmatic. Leadership is very critical for a group of unbred, unknowing individuals. The dor de'ah, generation of knowledge, was quite different. This nation had received the Torah, endured the wilderness, subsisted on manna, and was privy to a host of miracles and wonders. While it is true that initially there were a number of debacles, complaints, disputes and incidents that were indicative of the nation's infancy, this all occurred at the beginning of their forty-year journey. The group that was entering the Holy Land were davuk b'Hashem, attached to the Almighty. They all understood fully well their goals and objectives, their mission in life. Surely, they could have been left "alone" without a leader for a short time. What was Moshe's urgency? Furthermore, why does Moshe compare the nation to sheep?

Sheep have a tendency to follow one another. They are all part of a herd, whichever way the herd goes, so follow the rest of the sheep. Human beings are easily influenced by their peers. The most erudite fall prey to peer pressure. While everybody seeks individuality, they also seek acceptance by the community. There is nothing so heart-breaking as the individual who, for some reason, cannot assimilate into a community. As hard as he tries, he does not seem to achieve acceptance. A leader provides guidance and instruction. He directs and chooses the path the people should follow - much like a shepherd with his flock.

The "herd complex" applies to those who follow the lead of others, who either decline - or are unable - to swim against the current, who reject the notion of taking a stand, lest it be deemed unpopular. There are people who probably crave individuality, but are incapable of acting on their own. They need direction. Moshe understood that Klal Yisrael was easily influenced. Indeed, only Pinchas took a stand when the need presented itself. Where was everybody else? The leader of the tribe of Shimon committed a dastardly act of revulsion. How did the members of his tribe react to this affront? Did they stand up to him? No! They cowered and were even prepared to punish Pinchas - the one level-headed person who reacted with definitive action that ultimately achieved atonement for the nation. Moshe saw all of this and understood that, regardless of Klal Yisrael's unique spiritual status, their eminence notwithstanding, they required strong leadership - someone who would guide them along the proper path. Moshe had every reason to be concerned.

We all need guidance - be it a shul, school, or an organization. We function properly only with guidance and direction administered by competent and caring leadership. We are easily swayed by the negative influences which prevail in the secular world. We gravitate to what we perceive is our salvation when, essentially, it is the opposite. A leader will see through the ambiguities and expose the falsifiers for what they really are. He will then choose the correct path to follow.

While many great individuals are eminently capable of leading, they have to elicit a positive reaction from the people. In other words, we must be willing and inclined to listen and bend to our leaders. We live in a generation in which many Orthodox Jews are educated. We have all had some form of advanced Torah education, which many of us think qualifies us to judge our leaders, to disagree quietly, or even, at times, to dispute our leadership openly. This is in itself an indication of the need for strong leadership. As long as the sheep follow the guidance of their shepherd, they are protected from the wolves. Once they run wild, they encounter serious challenges to their continued well-being. A great difference exists between independence and reckless abandon, between freedom and anarchy. Accepting a leader does not infringe upon one's individuality. On the contrary, it indicates his self-confidence and peace of mind. He does not view the leader as a threat, but rather, as someone who can enhance his way of life.

Va'ani Tefillah

Ha'Bocheir b'shirei zimrah. Who chooses songs of praise.

The use of both terms, shirah and zimrah, seems redundant. They are both forms of melodious expression. Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, translates zimrah as praise, with shirei zimrah being songs of praise. The Chassidic masters define shirei zimrah as being related to shirayim, leftover, residual. Thus, they emphasize that one should make a point of garnering for himself the shirayim, residual, of the zimrah, songs. This refers to the mood, passion, emotion, after the song has been sung, the praises have been expressed, the emotion has run high, that which is left over within the person. Is he the same person, or has he been elevated by the song? That all depends on how much of it has been "left over" within. Horav Uri, zl, m'Stralisk, explains that the passion and fervor one manifests during davening is not much different than one who has a great desire and fulfills it. That which remains within him after he has concluded the davening, the emotion that he feels within his heart after he has poured out his heart to Hashem in Praise - that shirayim is what Hashem chooses.

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