The Pinchas Paradox: The Dangers of Overcompensation

hero image

As I write this, it’s time for parshas Pinchas. As a parsha, I like it just fine; the narrative sections in sefer Bemidbar are some of the most exciting portions in the Torah. But the arrival of parshas Pinchas leads to one of my personal bugaboos: people referring to it as “parshat Pinchat.”

This is not about the dichotomy between a taf and a saf, which is a subject I have had occasion to address in the past. My irritation about this matter is because “Pinchas” is spelled with a samech. Whether one pronounces things Ashkenazi, Sefardi or Yemenite, a samech is pronounced like the letter S.

There’s a joke about such overcompensation: One Chanukah evening, Berel turns to Shlomo and asks, “How many candles do we light tonight?” to which Shlomo responds, “Last night, we lit four.” (Hey, I didn’t say it was a particularly good joke!)

This joke hinges on the idea that when counting sefiras ha’omer, we inform someone how to count by telling them what the previous night was. This is done to avoid inadvertently fulfilling the current night’s mitzvah by counting prematurely. To answer a question about Chanukah in this way is pointless overcompensation.

While overcompensation can potentially be mildly amusing (as in our joke) or merely grating to this author’s ear (as in the case of “parshat Pinchat”), it can also be dangerous.

Consider the overcompensation cited by Rashi on Genesis 3:3-4. God had told Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge but when speaking to the serpent, Chava said that even to touch the tree would cause death. According to the sources cited by Rashi, Adam had added on to God’s words but he didn’t tell Chava that the part about not touching the tree was a “rabbinic” safeguard. All the serpent had to do was to prove to Chava that touching the tree didn’t cause death and, unable to distinguish the overcompensation from the thing itself, God’s entire command ended up being disregarded. (This is the rationale underlying the mitzvah of bal tosif, not to add onto the commandments.)

Or consider the overcompensation demonstrated by King Saul. In I Samuel 15, Saul kept King Agag of Amalek alive despite God’s command to execute him. Later, in I Samuel 22, Shaul ordered the eradication of Nov, the city of kohanim, for harboring David. (They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong; since David was Saul’s son-in-law, they actually thought that they were helping Shaul!) Rabbi Elazar, cited in both the Tanchuma and the Yalkut Shimoni, says that one who is merciful to the guilty will ultimately overcompensate by being cruel to the innocent.

Actually, this overcompensation might be middah k’neged middah (measure for measure). Another version of this midrash, cited in Koheles Rabbah, has Shaul balking at God’s command that he execute the women, children and livestock of Amalek. To this, a Heavenly voice replies by telling Shaul, “Do not be overly righteous” (Koheles 7:16). His initial overcompensation of misplaced righteousness is what led to his later overcompensation of misplaced cruelty.

Being “overly righteous” is a common cause of overcompensation. The mishna in Sotah (3:4) tells us that a “pious fool” destroys the world. The gemara (21b) explains that a “pious fool” refers to a man who refuses to save a woman from drowning because he doesn’t look at women. Such overcompensation is actively harmful.

Given all of these examples, one might think that overcompensation is potentially the world’s greatest evil and that it should be avoided at all costs. Actually, as with most things, overcompensation does have a time and a place.

The Rambam, in Hilchos Deios chapter 1, advocates for following the “straight path,” which he defines as the midpoint between the extremes of every character trait. For example, one should not be easily angered, nor should he be an emotionless robot. One should not be stingy, nor should he be a spendthrift. One should be neither too giddy nor too gloomy.

In chapter 2, the Rambam tells us how to correct character flaws: by overcompensating for them:

We tell an angry person to train himself not to react even if he should be beaten or cursed. He should follow this course of action for a long time, until the trait of anger is gone from his heart. A person who is full of himself should expose himself to disgrace. He should sit in the most humble places, wear tattered clothes that shame a person, etc., until his egotism has been removed from his heart and he returns to proper path. The same course of action should be followed with all other traits. If a person has gone too far to one extreme, he should move in the direction of the opposite extreme. He should train himself in the other extreme for a long time until he re-centers himself on the proper path, which is the midpoint of every characteristic.

The difference between this overcompensation and the kind exhibited by Chava, Shaul or a “pious fool” is significant. Chava was acting based on partial information provided her by Adam. Shaul was making an error in judgment by considering his own morality superior to God’s and acting based on his faulty conclusions. The pious fool carries a legitimate halacha to a ridiculous, non-halachic extreme, devastating the world in the process. Each of these is based on misinformation. (You’ll note that Shaul initially erred by being too lenient; the pious fool errs by being too stringent. Overcompensation in either direction can be ruinous.)

The overcompensation advocated by the Rambam, however, is based on information, not the lack thereof. A person knows that he has a flaw that needs correction and he yields overcompensation as a tool towards the particular goal of fixing it. His overcompensation is a temporary, controlled measure, not an end unto itself.

Everything in this world has a potential use for mankind. King David asked God what purpose spiders serve; God replied, “You’ll find out.” Later, David was saved from Shaul in a cave when he was concealed by a spider’s web. David asked God what purpose insanity serves; God replied, “You’ll find out.” Later, David was able to escape from King Achish of Gath by feigning madness.

As with all things, overcompensation has the potential to serve a purpose. The question is whether we control it or whether we let it control us. One can lead to self-improvement, the other to tragedy.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.