JC Sidra Column: Pinchas

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 July 2014

It will be for him and his descendants a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God.
Numbers 25:13

What to do with Pinchas?

His model of religious action in killing Zimri and Cozbi is deeply disturbing, an apparent invitation to acts of zealotry.  And yet it receives divine approval.  Not merely approval, but the reward of a ‘pact of friendship’, a divine promise of ‘eternal priesthood’.

This tension was as uncomfortable for the early Sages as it is for us.  They disapproved of religious zealotry, but faced a dilemma: how to prevent it without challenging the model of Torah?  How to express their unease at Pinchas’ actions without contradicting the ruling of God?

Doing so required great creativity – both legal ingenuity and textual imagination.

While unable to explicitly prohibit acts such as that of Pinchas, the rabbis used halachic measures to ensure that his example could not be followed.  As with the application of the death penalty generally (commanded by Torah; disapproved of by the rabbis), the Sages created standards of proof and legal process that ensured we can admire Pinchas (if we must) but are unable, legally, to emulate him.

At the same time, the rabbis used their midrashic imagination to develop the Torah text, placing it outside of ordinary human experience.  They embellished the acts of Zimri and Cozbi to take them beyond the pale, and they positioned a divine helping hand into the story.  midrash Numbers Rabbah speaks of twelve miracles enacted on Pinchas’ behalf by God in his slaughtering of Zimri and Cozbi.  This is help that potential zealots can not expect to receive.

In their approach to Pinchas, the Rabbis provide an example to us.  They refused to treat biblical characters as simple role models; they understood the complexity of a loving relationship with Torah; and they refused to abdicate their own moral responsibility to a text with which they disagreed