My family recent observed yahrzeit for my father. At his Levoyah the Rabbi giving the Hesbed compared him to Pinchas who takes centre stage towards the end of today’s sedra. Zimri and Cosbi acted immorally in front of the people and Moshe was shocked and rooted to the spot, unable to take the leadership role. Pinchas picked a spear and killed them both (Bamidbar 25: 7-8). The Rabbi said it was outstanding leadership but a violent act and by linking Pinchas’s attributes to my father’s unintentionally caused great consternation. My dad was a real communal leader but was not, in any way, violent. Ever since then I’ve been trying to understand what the real story was and what was in the Rabbi’s mind.
I’ve read four different interpretations relating to Pinchas’s action beautifully summarised by Dr. David Bernat.
- We know that Jewish Law makes it virtually impossible for capital punishment to occur. Chapter 4 of Mishnah Sanhedrin, Tosefta Sanhedrin (11:1-2) and Mishnah Avot (1.1) all lead to the conclusion that the death penalty could never be invoked. Was this an impulsive action where Pinchas did not bother to consider the Law?
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:6 describes four scenarios where the death penalty could be invoked without a trial. One of the scenarios was that which Pinchas had witnessed.
- Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 10.2 reflects on Bamidbar 25:7 “and he [Pinchas] arose from the midst of the community”. The Yerushalmi’s interpretation was that the community was, in fact, a Sanhedrin that had been convened to consider the case. Hence the law was fully considered before the sentence was carried out.
- Sanhedrin 82a discusses as ‘conversation’ between Pinchas and Moshe where Pinchas reminded Moshe of the law which he had learnt - 2 above – which meant that the death sentence had to be carried out. Pinchas was given the ‘honour’ as he had remembered the law and the correct course of action.
God rewarded Pinchas with his ‘Covenant of Peace’ and his descendants with ‘a Covenant of Eternal Priesthood’ (Bamidbar 25:12-13) so it would appear that Pinchas acted exactly as God had wanted. What appeared violent to those without understanding of the law was actually, legally, the correct thing to do.
May we all be remembered for always doing the right thing. Shabbat shalom.
Written in memory of Shlomo Yeshaya ben Avraham, Cyril Daniels z”l