Parshat Pinchas: A Covenant of Peace

“Therefore, say that I give to him my covenant of peace.” (BeMidbar 25:12)

The closing passages of Parshat Balak provide an introduction to our parasha. Women from the nations of Moav and Midyan enter the camp of Bnai Yisrael. These women seduce members of Bnai Yisrael. The heathen women use these illicit relationships to lead their partners into idolatrous practices. Discipline and sexual restraint begin to break down. Ultimately, Zimri – a leader of Shevet Shimon – publicly enters into a romantic liaison with a woman from Midyan. The woman – Kazbi – is a princess of Midyan. Hashem strikes Bnai Yisrael with a plague. Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Kohen, takes action. He executes Zimri and Kazbi. In response to Pinchas’ zealousness, the Almighty ends the plague.

Hashem acknowledges Pinchas’ righteous zealousness. Hashem rewards Pinchas. Our pasuk relates one the rewards. Hashem enters into a covenant of peace with Pinchas.

What was this covenant of peace? Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers the simplest explanation. He explains that Pinchas placed himself in danger. He executed a leader of Shevet Shimon. Zimri’s friends and followers would seek retribution. Hashem promised Pinchas that he would live in peace. Zimri’s comrades would not succeed in disturbing Pinchas’ life.[1]

Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel offers an alternative interpretation of this covenant of peace. He explains that Hashem promised to transform Pinchas into an angel. As an angel, he will be the harbinger of the Messiah.

This interpretation presents two problems. First, how can this interpretation be reconciled with the simple meaning of the passage? The pasuk states that the Almighty is entering into a covenant of peace with Pinchas. It makes no reference to Pinchas’ transformation or the Messianic era!

Second, Hashem rewards are not arbitrary. They correspond to our actions. According to Rabbaynu Yonatan ben Uziel, Pinchas would be transformed into and angel and assigned the distinction of announcing the Messianic era. How does this reward correspond with Pinchas’ actions?

In order to answer these questions, we must reevaluate the events described above. The behaviors and experiences of Bnai Yisrael at the end of Parshat Balak mirror or presage the phenomenon of the Jewish people’s exile. In exile we have been faced with two great threats – persecution and assimilation. These two threats are related. However, this relationship has sometimes been misunderstood.

It is sometimes assumed that assimilation prevents persecution. This theory maintains that persecution is directed against outsiders. The most effective method for avoiding persecution is assimilation into the host society. Jewish history seems to invalidate this theory. The Jewish people has not succeeded in stemming persecution through melting into its surroundings. In fact, attempts at assimilation have often been greeted with increased persecution.

The events at the end of Parshat Balak suggest an alternative relationship between assimilation and persecution. In this incident, Bnai Yisrael began to assimilate. The people joined in liaisons with the women of Moav and Midyan. They adopted their heathen practices. This behavior evoked Hashem’s retribution. The nation was struck with a plague. Assimilation led to punishment. This suggests that persecution is a response to attempts to assimilate. In other words, assimilation does not prevent persecution. It invites persecution!

Now let us consider Pinchas’ response. Pinchas recognized that the plague was a consequence of the nation’s iniquity. He realized that the plague could only be arrested through a return to Torah. He acted energetically and zealously. He demanded that the nation change direction and return to Hashem.

Pinchas saved Bnai Yisrael. He also provided future generations with a model for responding to national tragedy. We must return to Torah. This is the only way to avoid persecution. This is the only means of survival in exile.

Based on this analysis, we can understand the relationship between Pinchas’ reward and his behavior. He demonstrated the appropriate response to the national tragedy. He demonstrated the proper response to the experiences of exile. He provided guidance in dealing with the sorrows of our banishment. It is fitting that he should announce the end of exile and the advent of the Messianic era.

This interpretation of our passage is not inconsistent with the plain meaning of the words. Pinchas ended the plague. He negotiated a peace between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.[2] Exile represents banishment from before Hashem. It is a disruption of the peace between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Pinchas is promised a covenant of peace. He will announce the Messianic era. He will proclaim the reestablishment of perfect peace between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael.

“And he and his descendants after him will have a covenant of permanent priesthood. This is because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for Bnai Yisrael.” (BeMidbar 25:13)

Pinchas’ behavior is discussed in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The Yerushalmi makes an amazing comment regarding the authority of the zealot and Pinchas’ decision. The Talmud begins by establishing the basic law of the zealot. The zealot has the authority to act in this extreme case. One need not consult the court. However, the Talmud then adds that this behavior is not appropriate and is not completely approved by the Sages. In other words, the Sages would not encourage the zealot to execute this law. Furthermore, the Talmud explains that the Sages of Pinchas’ time did not approve of his behavior! Our pasuk is Hashem’s response to the Sages’ disapproval. The Almighty rewards Pinchas for his zeal. He indicates that Pinchas acted properly and deserves praise.[3]

This discussion raises many questions. First, the Torah in this instance permits the zealot to execute the sinner. Why do the Sages discourage the zealot from performing this mission? If the Sages are correct in their policy, why did Hashem commend Pinchas? Finally, after the Torah endorsed Pinchas’ decision why did the Sages not change their position?

Torah Temimah deals with these questions and offers a brilliant answer. He explains that the Torah only permitted a specific type of individual to act in this case. This is an individual motivated by zeal to protect the Torah. Any other individual is prohibited to act in this case.

This answers our questions. The Torah permits the zealot to execute the sinners. However, the Sages discouraged this behavior. They felt that it is difficult for a person to evaluate one’s own motives. A person may confuse some personal motivation with authentic zeal. The Sages are not contradicting the Torah. They are merely recognizing the difficulty of meeting the requirements of the law.

The Sages did not feel that even Pinchas should have relied on his own assessment of his personal motivations. For this reason they did not immediately approve of his behavior. The Almighty rewarded Pinchas. This demonstrated that Pinchas had been motivated by authentic zeal.

The Torah’s endorsement on Pinchas’ behavior did not alter the Sages’ general position. True, Pinchas had acted appropriately. However, this does not mean that a lesser individual can be trusted to perform this personal assessment.[4]

These are the children of Efraim according to their census – 32,500. These are the children of Yosef according to their families.“ (BeMidbar 26:37)

Moshe and Elazar conduct a census of Bnai Yisrael. This census is performed in preparation of the dividing the land among the Shevatim – the tribes – and their individual members. The Torah provides a detailed report of the census. Some of the results deserve attention.

In order to appreciate one of these results, a brief introduction is necessary. Before his death Yaakov blessed Yosef. He told Yosef that his two sons – Efraim and Menashe – would be as Reuven and Shimon. This blessing has many implications. One of these implications is that the population of the shevatim of Efraim and Menashe would equal or exceed that of Reuven and Shimon.

This is the second census recorded in Sefer BeMidbar. The sefer begins with a census. This first census was conducted at the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s sojourn in the wilderness. At the time of the first census in Sefer BeMidbar, this blessing had not yet been fulfilled.

Table 1

Shevet Population
Reuven 46,500
Shimon 59,300
Total 105,800

Shevet Population
Efraim 40,500
Menashe 32,200
Total 72,700

Table 1 compares the total population of Reuven and Shimon to that of Efraim and Menashe. These population statistics are from the first census in Sefer BeMidbar. As this table reveals, the population of the shevatim of Reuven and Shimon was substantially greater than that of Efraim and Menashe.

Let us now consider the population statistics for these shevatim reported on our parasha. This statistics are shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Shevet Population
Reuven 43,700
Shimon 22,200
Total 65,900
Percentage change -38%

Shevet Population
Efraim 32,500
Menashe 52,700
Total 85,200
Percentage change 17%

Table 2 reveals that at the time of the census in our parasha, Yaakov’s promise was fulfilled. The combined population of Efraim and Menashe exceeded that of Reuven and Menashe.

This table reveals another important statistic. In the period between the first and second census, the shevatim of Efraim and Menashe experienced remarkable population growth. During this period the overall population of the nation was virtually unchanged. These two shevatim grew at by 17%. This indicates that the population growth of these two shevatim exceeded that natural rate. In other words, the Almighty exercised His providence to assure the fulfillment of Yaakov’s promise.[5]

[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:12.

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1998), p 141.

[3] Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Sanhedrin 9:7.

[4] Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah on Sefer BeMidbar 25:13.

[5] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1998), pp. 143-144.