Rabbi Michael Bernstein
Prudence, goes the old saying, is the better part of valor. Bravery is a virtue, but only as long as it doesn’t overstep the line that separates courage from foolhardiness. Moses quite sensibly asked God that his replacement be a courageous leader, but he also asked that he lead the troops into battle, as would King David centuries later (27:17; Rashi). Was this prudent? Would it be wise for a general to risk his life by placing himself in the heat of the battle?
In the annals of warfare, a king or general rarely rides into battle at the head of his armies. A general is simply too valuable an asset to risk. Moreover, a general at the front would be in greater danger than an ordinary officer, because the enemy would throw all its forces directly at him; a decapitated army is an incapacitated army. In the short run, the general’s presence might inspire the troops, but in the long run, the loss of a general would cripple the army. Why then would Moses want his replacement to lead the troops into battle?
Unlike the general providence that governs the fortunes of all peoples, the Jewish people exist under a special divine providence. This is particularly true when the entire nation and its leader are at risk. Enemy troops may launch thick clouds of arrows at the Jewish leader, but none will find its mark if it is not specifically so ordained. When he leads his troops into battle, a Jewish leader underscores the important point that faith in God is the Jewish nation’s ultimate shield, that his and the nation’s spiritual shortcomings are far more threatening than enemy weapons.
Moses wanted a Jewish leader who would be in the forefront of battle. He wanted a leader who understood that the Jewish people, and their leader in particular, were under an intimate divine providence. Such an attitude would convey to the Jewish soldiers that only fealty to God and His Torah would bring them victory.
Moses also asked God that his replacement lead the Jewish armies back from battle. What was the purpose of this request? What difference could it possibly make?
There are two outcomes to war¾victory and defeat. In victory, it is common for conquering troops to vent their triumphant exhilaration in a rampage of pillage and plunder. A Jewish leader, the moral shepherd of his people, cannot allow this to happen. Once the battle is won, he must lead the troops home sober and humble in the knowledge that it is God who has delivered their enemies into their hands. Conversely, if the battle should end in defeat, leaders of lesser virtue shift the blame to underlings and downplay their own roles. Not so the ideal Jewish leader. He takes full responsibility for whatever takes place. Even if his troops return home, heads hung in defeat, he stands at their head of his troops, bearing the blame. And he leads the people to self-examination and repentance.
Falling through the Cracks
Spear in hand, Pinchas strode into the encampment and impaled the Jewish prince Zimri as he coupled with a Midianite princess, stemming the plague that had claimed twenty-four thousand lives. For this, God duly rewarded him (25:10-13). “And God spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Kohein, deflected My wrath from the people of Israel when he wrought My vengeance among them, so I did not annihilate the people of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, say, “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace.” And it shall be a covenant of eternal priesthood for him and his offspring after him for his having taken vengeance for his Lord and atoned for the people of Israel.’”
The paradox is striking. God rewards Pinchas for his violent, albeit justifiable, act of vengeance with an eternal covenant of peace! God also gives him an eternal covenant of priesthood (Kehunah), which in itself includes the priestly blessing to the people that “may God grant you peace.” How do we reconcile Pinchas’ reward of peace with his ferocious and violent vengeance on God’s behalf?
Our Sages praise (Avos 1:12) Pinchas’ righteous grandfather Aaron, the patriarch of the priesthood, for “loving God’s creatures” (ohev es habrios). Love of his fellow man was one of Aaron’s overriding virtues, and yet it still required balance.
Twice in the Torah do we find Aaron liable to punishment. The first is when Aaron participated passively in the construction of the Golden Calf in order to stall for time. In Deuteronomy (9:20), Moses reveals that he had successfully intervened to save Aaron from death at that time. The second occasion is at Mei Merivah, where God commands Moses and Aaron to bring forth water from a rock by speaking to it but Moses strikes it instead (20:7 ff). As a result, both Moses and Aaron are barred from entry to the Holy Land; they must die in the desert. In this case, only Moses hit the rock, and yet Aaron is guilty for his passive acquiescence to Moses’ act. We may find a commonality of these failings. We may suggest that in both instances Aaron’s great love of humanity led to a small lack of immediate zeal to criticize and find fault in another human being.
Aaron’s principal trait, which was to set the tone for all future Kohanim, was his love for his fellow man. This great virtue, however, carries the risk of imbalance. The Kohanim’s love of humanity needed to be balanced with zeal on God’s behalf. The word shalom, peace, is best translated as harmony. Pinchas’ act of zealotry for God balanced the scales for the Kehunah by introducing zeal into the equation. Henceforth, Kohanim were characterized not only by love for man but also by zeal for God; in the Talmud, we find that rabbinic regulations do not apply in the Temple. They are unnecessary, because the priests are zerizim (diligent). God rewarded Pinchas with the eternal covenant of priesthood and peace in recognition of the balance he had brought to the Kehunah with his seminal act of zealotry. He brought a true and lasting peace, a harmonious peace.
Why, of all the Kohanim, did only Pinchas see clearly the need to temper love with zeal? The answer may lie in his personal background. Initially, Pinchas had actually been excluded from the priesthood. When God initiated Aaron and his sons Eleazar and Isamar into the priesthood (Leviticus 8:1 ff), Eleazar’s son Pinchas was too young to be invested in his own right. But since he had already been born at the time of the investiture, he could not claim hereditary sanctity as would his brothers and their future descendants. In effect, Pinchas was excluded from the priesthood. He had fallen through the cracks.
But there are no cracks in divine providence. If circumstances had excluded Pinchas, there must have been a good reason. And indeed, there was, because his very exclusion led to the harmonious restructuring of the priesthood.
According to the Sages (Shemos Rabbah 7:5; Bava Basra 109b), Pinchas’ mother Putiel descended from Joseph and Jethro. Her very name recalled Joseph’s resistance to an illicit liaison and Jethro’s rejection of idolatry (Exodus 6:25; Rashi). Moreover, perhaps because Jethro was an outsider, he gave Moses good counsel from a clear perspective (Exodus 18:13 ff).
Precisely these virtues propelled Pinchas to his heroic deed. Zimri’s outrageous act aroused Pinchas’ visceral rejection of lust and idolatry. And as an outsider, excluded from the Kehunah, he could observe his relatives the Kohanim treating the people with great love but insufficient zeal. He compensated for their deficiencies when he grabbed his spear and wrought God’s vengeance on the sinners. By his heroic deed, Pinchas entered the Kehunah on the highest level, as the beneficiary of God’s eternal covenant of harmonious peace.