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G-d said to Moses: 'Phineas… appeased My wrath against the Israelites when he executed My vengeance with zeal, so I did not consume the Israelites in My vengeance (25:10-11)
Both Phineas (in the Parasha) and Elijah (in the Haftara) are recorded as Kanaim - zealous. The Yalkut, at the beginning of Parashat Pinchas, records the tradition that Elijah is identified as Phineas. Hirsch explains this as meaning that the spirit of the zeal of Phineas was carried on by the Prophet Elijah.
By acting on behalf of G-d in killing Zimri, Phineas publicly put an end to the idolatry, adultery and the associated evils flowing from them. And by acting on behalf of G-d in killing the prophets of Baal, Elijah publicly struck a blow against the particularly virulent Baal culture imported and imposed on the Northern Kingdom of Israel by King Ahab's foreign wife, Jezebel.
Phineas was Aaron's grandson. Why did his killing of Zimri (a leader of the tribe of Simeon) and Kozbi (one of the Midyanite princesses) 'appease G-d's wrath' causing the plague that already killed 24,000 to 'stop'?
By way of analogy, look at the following very different issue of Passover. There, the Israelites are commanded to carry out the mandatory Passover offering on the eve of the festival - 'at the appointed time' (9:2). If an individual is ritually unclean, he may bring the sacrifice one month later (9:10-11). However, the Midrash (Sifre: Beha'alotcha 7) derives that this only applies when the community as a whole is pure. If that is not the case, all must bring the Passover offering on the eve of the festival - whether pure or not.
There are many reasons why the community as a whole may be ritually unclean - for example being in crowded buildings when deaths occurred. (For that matter, even today, it is Halachically required for a person to wash his hands on leaving the cemetery.) It is not a reprehensible matter, it is a Halachic reality. And in the case of the Passover offering, the Almighty 'meets the people' by allowing them to celebrate the Passover in the correct way, even when the majority are ritually unclean. There is no question of broken loyalty to G-d, or compromising basic issues.
By contrast, the communal sin of Baal Peor was a mass breach of loyalty to G-d (idolatry) and adultery with the daughters of Moab. In response, G-d does not respond by 'lowering His standards' to 'go along with' the 'current desires and trends' of the people. Their place in the Creation is to uphold those standards, not to follow the latest fashions and temptations. Thus the Israelites lost their niche in the Creation as the dead mounted up through plague.
And Phineas was not just a zealot, he was a man who 'got it'. He 'got' to the core of the matter. He saw that the wholesale spiritual defection of the Israelites was endorsed by the actions of the leadership, who openly set the example for the rest. Phineas himself was a leader - he was the grandson of Aaron. So was Prince Zimri. And so was Princess Kozbi. And Phineas' action in fatally striking Zimri and Kozbi was an action that ended that 'fashion' in the eyes of the Israelites…
The message is as follows. If a person tries hard to do the right thing and just doesn't make it, G-d has 'His' way of 'admitting' him or her, and if the Jewish people do the same thing, He has His way of coming to meet them, even if they are not as close to tradition as those who stood on Mount Sinai or sat in the study halls with Abaye and Raba. As with the case of the Passover offering. But He makes no compromise with the mass jettisoning of the sacred and absolute heritage in blindly following the rapidly changing negative aspects of the latest ideological fads and fashions… as exemplified with Baal Peor.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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