Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the High Priest, turns aside the wrath of G-d when he takes the law into his hands and kills Zimri, prince of the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi, a Midianite princess, who were involved in an immoral sexual act in the sight of Moshe and the people of Israel.
G-d praises Pinchas's act and rewards him with His "covenant of peace" and the promise that his descendants will have everlasting membership in the priesthood.
Contrast this with the fate of Aharon's two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were killed by G-d when they brought an unauthorized fire offering during the dedication of the Tanernacle.
The exact nature of Nadav and Avihu's sin is a matter of dispute among our Sages. One opinion states that they were killed because they decided a matter of Jewish law in the presence of their teachers, Moshe and Aharon, without consulting them.
But Pinchas also decided a matter of Jewish law in the presence of his teachers, Moshe and Aharon, without consulting them, and he was not killed by G-d. To the contrary, he is praised and rewarded by G-d.
What is the difference between Pinchas's act and Nadav and Avihu's act? Why is Pinchas rewarded and Nadav and Avihu are killed?
Nadav and Avihu's transgression was in the area of commandments between G-d and man. On their own, they modified a G-d given ritual, neglecting to consult their teachers to determine if their modifications was permissible.
All the commandments concerning the ritual offerings are chukim, commandments whose reasons are not revealed to us. They are decrees from G-d and we must follow them to the letter. There is no room for personal initiative and modification. Only complete obedience to the decrees of G-d will bring us closer to Him.
Because Nadav and Avihu tampered with these unknowable laws before the entire congregation, G-d had to make an example of them and punish them with death. G-d does not show favoritism; even great men are punished when they sin.
If improvisation in the sacrificial service would be overlooked is time, pagan elements would eventually seep in as well.
Pinchas, too, violated commandments of the Torah, Not only did he decide the law without consulting his teachers, but he also killed two people. Indeed, we find criticism of him in the Talmud Yerushalmi: "They would have excommunicated him were it not for the Holy Spirit, which jumped up and said that he and his descendants would have a covenant of everlasting priesthood."
The Talmud Bavli explains that Pinchas dared to act without first receiving permission from Moshe because when there is a desecration of G-d's name, one does not give honor to his teacher.
Moshe and Aharon did not act. They cried at the entrance to the Tabernacle. They did not know how to respond to this ghastly act of immorality, perhaps, as some of our sages suggest, because Moshe himself had married a Midianite.
An act of gross immorality that threatened to undermine the very basis of Jewish family life was being performed in public by a prince of Israel and no one was doing anything about it. This was a great desecration of G-d's name, which could have brought destruction upon the entire people.
Pinchas, therefore, killed two people to prevent this plague.
His act was risky, though had Zimri killed Pinchas first, his act would be seen as self-defense and well within halachic bounds. No court would have convicted him of murder.
The practical lesson we learn is that Pinchas's action was unique, a one of a kind emergency measure that can only be justified in the context of his time and place. Unlike Nadav and Avihu, Pinchas was rewarded because he stepped in during a national emergency and saved the people from disaster.
Nonetheless, we should never imitate his actions. Even Pinchas would have been condemned by the religious authorities of his day had G-d Himself not come to his defense. Even though the fate of Nadav and Avihu and that of Pinchas were very different, the conclusion that we draw from their actions is the same: No one is above the law.
Rabbi David J. Radinsky
Rabbi Radinsky is Rabbi of Congregation Brith Shalom Beth Israel, Charleston, South Carolina.
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