Pinchas-the Zealot

The protagonist of our parsha (Pinchas) performed what looks like on the surface, a cruel act – he killed the leader of one of the tribes of Israel (Shimon) while he was in the midst of illicit relations with a foreign woman.  Yet, in one of the ironies of the Torah, PInchas was rewarded the “covenant of peace,” and became an official priest (Cohen).  To understand this, we must first ask a couple more questions…

While introducing Pinchas, the Torah goes at length to mention his yichus, or ancestry – “PInchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon” (Num. 25:7).  Rashi explains that this is because the rest of the tribes were taunting PInchas, accusing him of stemming from an idol worshiping grandfather (Yitro) on his mother’s side. In response, the Torah emphasized that his grandfather on his father’s side was no less than Aharon the High priest.  Now, we may understand the animosity that the tribe of Shimon felt toward Pinchas; after all, he killed their leader.  But, why would the rest of the tribes of Israel feel this animosity toward Pinchas?  After all, he righted a wrong, and performed justice among the Jews…

Furthermore, if the tribes wished to taunt Pinchas and “put him in his place,” why not level a far more serious charge at him – that he was a murderer?  After all, he killed Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, so why simply taunt him regarding his ancestry – accuse him of being a murderer!

The answer lies in the nature of Pinchas’ act.  Pinchas acted altruistically, out of principle, and yet like any zealot, he left himself open to accusations of ulterior motives.  The zealot is judged differently than every other criminal, who is brought up on charges, who has a defender, and who is tried before an independent judge or jury.  The zealot is judged based upon his character, not upon his deed.  Anyone else accused of a crime may expect due process of the law.  However, the zealot is judged by his personality, not by a court of law.  And therein lies the explanation for the accusations of the tribes against Pinchas.

At first glance, PInchas’ act of killing Zimri seemed incredibly cruel.  Here Zimri was in the midst of an act that on the surface was an act of kindness, and Pinchas cruelly put an end to it.  This was the suspicion that the tribes had of Pinchas – that he did not act altruistically, but rather out of cruelty.  Why did they think so?  Because his grandfather (Yitro) was one who “fattened cows for idol worship.”  It is one thing to worship idols, itself a heinous sin – but to fatten cows, ostensibly acting kindly by feeding the cows, and then to kill them?  This suggests the height of cruelty.  And therefore, the Torah answers that “no, Pinchas did not act out of cruel motivations.”  His grandfather on his father’s side was the kindest of all men – Aharon the High priest, who sought peace for all people.

In effect, the tribes did not accuse Pinchas of murder, because they knew that he acted out of principal, as a zealot, and not as a murderer.  But, as a zealot, they did suspect him of ulterior motives – of being cruel.  The irony is that although Zimri seemed to be acting with kindness by bringing the foreign woman into the Jewish “camp,” his act would have resulted in cruelty by bringing foreign concepts of idol worship among the Jews.  Moreover, it was Shimon who, together with his brother Levi, killed the entire city of Shechem.  So, in truth, it was Shimon was possessed a cruel streak, and not Pinchas.  And it was Pinchas who seemed on the surface to be acting cruelly, and yet his act proved to have kind consequences – returning peace to the Jewish people and protecting the necessary boundaries of Judaism.

For more detail, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,

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