By Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl
A cow once stumbled upon a wounded bird lying on the ground in pain and discomfort. Doing what cows do best, the bird was left covered in a heap of animal refuse. Suddenly she felt warm and cozy. So happy was the bird with her newfound comfort, she began to sing.
Spurred by the sweet twittering, a farmer working in a nearby field followed the sound, only to discover the little creature lying submerged in manure.
The farmer immediately removed the animal from her wretched surroundings. Painstakingly he cleaned her and carefully placed her down. However, to his great disappointment the little bird would no longer sing. She was, in fact, noticeably withdrawn.
Realizing that he had upset her by removing her from her comfortable and cozy surroundings, the kind farmer looked at the bird and said: Little bird, little bird, let me teach you some very important lessons in life:
First of all: Not everyone that makes you feel comfortable is necessarily your friend.
Secondly: Not everyone that makes you feel uncomfortable is necessarily your enemy.
Finally dear birdie: When you are wallowing in manure, try not to sing.
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Do not look at the vessel, but rather at what it contains; there may be a new vessel filled with aged wine, or an old vessel in which there is not even new wine. (Pirkei Avot 4:20)
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Every good parent, teacher and leader is only too aware of the short term strife resulting from an act of discipline. If not for one’s true love and commitment vis-a-vis the receiver and his long term benefit, who would ever consider the use of discipline? Still discipline is often confused with cruelty.
On the other hand, we’ve all been in the company of a parent that sits by and does nothing while his/her kids go bouncing off the wall in over-the-top roughhousing and boisterousness – be it during a social event, the doctor’s waiting room, or some other public setting – because they don’t want to hurt the child’s feeling. But is that the result of love or indifference? Is the inability to ever say no to a child a sign of kindness or weakness?
To broaden the question, are all acts of compassion necessarily good and are all acts of severity necessarily bad? The story of Pinchas, as related in this week’s Parsha, addresses this very issue.
At the end of last week’s Parsha, following G-d’s instruction to eliminate the Israelite men who were led astray by some Moabite women, we read about an Israelite Prince from the tribe of Shimon, by the name of Zimri, who acted immorally with the Midianite woman named Cozbi.
Claiming that since Moshe was allowed to marry the daughter of the Priest of Midian, he too should be allowed a Midianite woman, he proceeded to consort with Cozbi right in front of the Tent of Meeting.
By bringing the Midianite woman into the camp “Before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel,” Zimri publicly flouted Moshe’s authority and sought to open the floodgates for illicit relations. He attempted to tear down all boundaries between the holy and profane.
While the humble Moshe stood speechlessly amidst the entire Jewish leadership, in a state of shock and consternation over the public scandal, Pinchas took the law into his own hands by killing the Prince and the Midianite woman at the entranceway to the Tent of Meeting.
The killing gave rise to civil unrest. A highly charged dispute raged among the people as to whether his actions were justified or murderous. The tribe of Shimon was particularly irritated over Pinchas’ action, since Zimri was their leader.
In the beginning of our Parsha, G-d puts a decisive end to the controversy. The Almighty establishes Pinchas’ righteousness for all time, by tracing his lineage to Aharon the Kohen. Pinchas is further credited with halting the plague that had broken out as a result of Zimri’s contemptuous conduct. Finally, he is rewarded the covenant of Peace and eternal Priesthood.
“God spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of Peace. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.” (Numbers 25:10 – 13)
Rashi describes the nature of the accusations levied against Pinchas. Pinchas, they argued, was the maternal grandson of Yisro. This same Yisro, they noted, had once been an idol-worshipper who was in the habit of fattening calves for sacrifice – an act of supreme cruelty. After all what can be more cruel than to appear to be acting for someone’s benefit – feeding him well – only for the sake of the ultimate slaughter?
Why did Pinchas, of all people, rise and take vengeance into his own hands? Because he was animated by malice, not by conscience. They accused him of having inherited a streak of cruelty from his grandfather, Yisro, which was the motivation and source of his zealous behavior.
In light of Rashi’s commentary we can better appreciate G-d’s response in establishing Pinchas’ genealogy as the “son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest.” As Rashi tacitly points out, the crucial emphasis here is on Aharon’s character. For aside from his priesthood, Aharon is remembered as one who “pursued peace and caused love to descend between contending parties.”
The intent is then to show that in his act of zealotry, Pinchas was not the “grandson of Yisro” but the “grandson of Aharon.” In other words: he was not driven by cruelty but by a burning religious zeal. When contention set-in between the Israelites and G-d, Pinchas sought to replace it with love, as the verse states, “Pinchas . . . has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel.’’
This was the underlying nature of Pinchas’ zealousness – a deep love of peace, which he had inherited from his grandfather Aharon – a desire to remove the cause of the bitterness between G-d and His people and calm the Divine wrath.
Pinchas did not even consider the danger to himself. Since Zimri was supported by his entire tribe, he could have easily been killed. Nevertheless, his concern for the spiritual and physical danger facing the Jewish people was so great that he was willing to risk his life in order to eliminate the threat. For this he is awarded G-d’s “Covenant of peace.”
Now, please don’t get any crazy ideas. While Pinchas’ form of zealotry had its time and place, it is obviously not meant for us to emulate today. No, do not try this at home!
In general, one cannot realistically expect to receive the kind of Divine stamp of approval, as did Pinchas, for any self initiated actions. As asserted in Ethics of the Fathers: “Make for yourself a Rabbi (teacher/advisor) and “Acquire a friend,” in order to benefit from his or her more objective perspective.
In fact, in our very Parsha, the highly articulate and well-reasoned petition on behalf of the daughters of Tzlefchad follows the actions of Pinchas. This is not a coincidence. In having worked their way through the hierarchical advisory/judicial structure that Moshe has instituted, upon Yisro’s advice, they benefited from much rabbinical guidance. Perhaps it comes to teach us that the cautious and well-reasoned approach is the more exemplary course with regards to personal initiative.
The above notwithstanding, there is certainly a lesson to be taken from Pinchas’ zealous actions and his glorification by G-d. While we are not meant to do what Pinchas did, we must realize that there is a time for revealed love and a time for a deeper concealed love, i.e., discipline. While discipline, also known as Gevura, may seem crule, it is not necessarily the case.
The lesson that we can take from Pinchas is that first impressions may be deceiving. The fact is that not all discipline is bad and not all kindness is good. This notion is as timely as it is profound. It is very relevant to the three week period in which we now find ourselves, known as “Bein Hamtzarim” – between the straits. It is the time of year when we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple and the events that led up to it, which mark the beginning of the long and arduous Golus – exile in which we find ourselves today.
Golus is agonizing, it is extremely challenging, but it is not bad. G-d creates no bad. Golus is G-d’s Gevura – discipline. Much as Gevura appears bad on the surface, it is good on the inside. Such is the case with exile as well. It is a matter of short term suffering versus long term benefit – the era of “Complete Shabbos and rest for life everlasting,” which is conceived and born amidst the pangs of Golus.
The Talmud tells us that Pinchas is Elijah. This is to say that the Profit Elijah is a reincarnation of Pinchas. We know that Elijah is the harbinger of the final redemption.
It is Pinchas who stopped the plague and brought down peace upon Israel, and it is Pinchas and his incarnation Elijah (and all those who occupy themselves with the work of Elijah – the heralding Moshiach) that will put an end to this dark exile and hasten the final and ultimate redemption, may it be speedily in our day!