Merkaz Anash, Beis Hamedrash L’shluchim and COLlive.com present The Chassidic Perspective with Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a weekly short webcast on topics that are timely and relevant.
Rabbi Kahn, often referred to as “Reb Yoel,” is the most preeminent authority on Chabad-chassidic teachings and was the chief reviewer and transcriber of the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Kahn is also the lead editor of Sefer Ha’erechim, a multi-volume encyclopedia of abstruse chassidic and mystical concepts and the head Mashpia at the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY.
This webcast is delivered in Yiddish and a transcription in English appears below or can be printed in a PDF format.
Our parsha begins with Pinchas’s lineage being traced back to Aharon. Rashi explains that the shevatim attempted to shame him by remarking that the same person whose maternal grandfather, Yisro, had overfed calves for the purpose of idolatrous sacrifices, had gone on to murder the nasi (Zimri) of a shevet (Shimon). Hashem responded to this by having the pasuk emphasize that his paternal grandfather was Aharon.
Why the Shame?
The Rebbe observes that the basis for Rashi’s insight appears to be the fact that his ancestry had already been listed previously, which suggests that the repetition here was specifically intended to praise him, and since the praise relates to his pedigree, it follows that it was in response to criticism of a similar nature.
But why does Rashi assume everyone took part in demeaning him, when it seems more reasonable to identify shevet Shimon, whose nasi he’d killed, as his detractors? Especially since we’re told that everyone stood with Moshe and wept as Zimri committed his sin, and particularly since the plague afflicting them had ceased immediately after Pinchas’s response? Why would most Jews belittle his deed instead of sympathizing with him?
Moreover, did those who disparaged him agree he acted justifiably or not? If he was wrong to respond the way he did, then why insult him by way of Yisro? He’s a murderer! And if they acknowledged his right to act and had no substantive complaint, then who cares about his grandfather? Finally, had they wished to simply denigrate Yisro by pointing to his idol worship, referring to his cattle feeding practices seems like an insignificant detail compared to the fact that he was personally an idolatrous priest!
Piety or Hate?
Chassidus teaches that when we witness someone reacting negatively to sin ostensibly on the grounds of piety, it’s possible that he simply possesses hostile tendencies which he’d been suppressing all along, until a righteous cause finally came along allowing him to channel that aggression, although he himself may not be consciously aware of that fact.
The Rebbe applies this principle to Pinchas’s case, where, despite the halacha as well as the miracles which aided him, it hadn’t occurred to any other pious witness, including Moshe, to do anything beyond weeping, which suggested that perhaps his actions had emanated from poor character. Yisro’s animal farming record, not his actual idolatry, seemed to support this evaluation, since overfeeding calves is both painful to them and particularly inhumane considering the true purpose. So despite the fact that Pinchas was within his halachic rights, people felt that Pinchas was at least partially motivated by hereditary cruelty.
This wasn’t just a mean-spirited attack on Pinchas, but also a defense of Moshe, who, like everyone besides Pinchas, hadn’t thought of applying the din. While Rashi explains that Hashem had only caused Moshe to forget so that Pinchas would have the opportunity to be promoted, this wasn’t something they could have known. They therefore were only able to explain Moshe’s disinclination to attack Zimri as an expression of his good traits, thereby casting aspersions on Pinchas, particularly considering his grandfather.
Moreover, they emphasized the identity of his victim, a nasi, which is particularly cruel since a nasi’s role is to protect and look after his shevet. In fact, Zimri’s very act was a misguided expression of kindness. As Rashi tells us that his shevet had complained to him about being stricken by the plague, and he therefore sought to challenge Moshe and demonstrate that their behavior wasn’t sinful and they were undeserving of death. They therefore argued that his cruelty made Pinchas the very nemesis of Zimri, leaving him unable to tolerate the radical display of good-heartedness being demonstrated. This is the logic underlying Rashi’s depiction of all of the shevatim making these arguments about Pinchas.
In response to this, Hashem drew attention to his grandfather, Aharon, who was the paragon of peace, including between the Jewish people and Hashem, and it was this transmitted motive which led Pinchas to take action to end the plague.
Fighting for Bittul
The Rebbe identifies a number of lessons here. Their argument teaches us to be wary of our own vehemence and to ascertain whether it’s purely fueled by religiosity, or whether it is partially the expression of a flawed character.
On the other hand, we sometimes suspect others of having ulterior motives, yet we can’t actually objectively identify their motivations, which may turn out to be entirely valid. The Rebbe expounds that we might feel that someone is being pious because of gaava, out of a desire for respect, and we’ll feel inclined to come to the defense of ‘Moshe,’ the values of humility and bitul, and condemn this individual for appearing to operate out of personal ambition and put him in his place.
But firstly, we can’t know what’s in his heart, and he might be doing things lishmah after all. And secondly, even if we’re correct, the Torah still asserts that one should act she’lo lishmah in anticipation of doing it for the proper reasons in the future, so why shame him for doing the right thing?
Furthermore, maybe our urge to criticize him is due to an ulterior motive, and we aren’t bothered by the possibility that he’s influenced by gaava, but instead are lashing out because his piety is reminding us of our shortcomings in the same areas, and we’re therefore attempting to belittle his advantage by projecting our own yeshus onto him. Moreover, even if he is motivated by gaava, he never actually claimed otherwise, yet if our objections are fueled by ego, then that would make us hypocrites!
Kindness or Cruelty?
We must also avoid falling into Zimri’s trap of attempting to diminish Torah’s severity out of concern for the fate of those who sin. When there’s a ‘plague,’ and Jews need to do teshuva, defending their actions is actually tremendously cruel! The Rambam condemns those who avoid linking tragedies to particular transgressions, never mind those who react by claiming that these actions are permitted!
Once again, it’s crucial never to disparage anyone doing something good, in contravention of the Torah which encourages him; we must respond by cajoling him into reaching greater heights, not with negativity. Yet there is an area where ‘kindness’ can be cruel, and vice versa; Pinchas followed Aharon’s path despite being a killer, since that was what halacha demanded, and Torah taught us not to attempt to judge him by testifying to his peaceful lineage.
For further learning see לקוטי שיחות חלק ח’ פרשת פנחס שיחה א’.