BUT SOMEONE HAS TO DO IT
Rabbi David Walk
This week's parsha begins in the middle of a very difficult story. It's the continuation of the story of Pinchas, who killed the promiscuous and idolatrous couple who were desecrating the holy Mishkan. I personally find this story so hard to deal with, because I like my spiritual heroes to be gentle and non-violent, like Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, or Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. However, I believe that our great Sages had grief over this episode, too. I think that's why they separated the tale into two parts. Last week we have the account of the violent deed, and this week we have the God's accolades and blessings. They could easily have added the first six verses of this Torah reading to the relatively short (104 verses) reading of last week, rather than add it to the long (168 verses) portion to be read this week. I believe strongly that they were dividing the beautiful and inspiring, from the sordid and depressing. There are a couple of lessons to be gleaned from this material, and that's my objective this week.
Our Torah reading begins with a review of Pinchas' pedigree: Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen (Numbers 25:10). The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105), very reasonably is bothered by this repetition of material that we already know. So, he comments: Since the tribes were disparaging him, saying,…who is he to kill a chieftain of an Israelite tribe? For this reason, Scripture traces his pedigree back to Aaron (based on Sanhedrin 82b). At the time of the heroic deed, no one was complaining, because, at least according to Rashi (who explains that the flaring wrath of God was a plague, verse 4), Pinchas' quick action saved lives. Sadly, this is a common situation. Communities find it very easy to criticize emergency behavior on the part of our leaders. In hindsight, it's amazing how much smarter the average member is than the leader was during the crisis. We see this in synagogues all the time. People will inform us of the fact that they would have responded better to a crisis. So might the rabbi or president if they could do it again.
It goes deeper than that. Often returning war heroes are severely criticized for violent actions taken during wartime situations. Even though, on occasion, these criticisms are appropriate, generally we should refrain from this behavior. At the time, those tough decisions were often necessary. I don't want to condone the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men (Col Jessup: Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns… my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.), but we denigrate war heroes at our peril. While they're saving our lives, we're grateful that they exist. Let's not be nitpicking hypocrites later. The Jews were pleased when Pinchas stopped the plague. It was a chutzpa to attack his integrity later. That's why the Torah is clear that Pinchas' actions were sincere and indispensable, and he is a worthy heir to Aharon's mantle.
There's another lesson. More subtle than the first. The Sfat Emet (Reb Aryeh Yehudah Alter, second Rebbe of Gur, 1847-1905) points out that Pinchas taught the community an important lesson, namely that zealous behavior is sometimes required for society to survive. This is what God is saying in the verse: He has turned My anger away from the children of
Without going into the laws of respect owed to a Torah teacher, there is an essential message to be understood here. Many people eventually outstrip their original teachers in academic or religious accomplishment. This is a point of pride for great educators. Even God is quoted as saying that there is pleasure in losing a debate to ones's students. According to the Sfat Emet, the lesson in our Rashi is for the now famous student to never denigrate his former mentor. There's a story told about a great Torah scholar who was being honored by the community for his huge contributions to Torah scholarship. The Rabbi requested that his first teacher who taught him the Aleph Bet be given the place of honor. This concerned the community who saw this simple pre-school teacher honored above some of the great rabbis of the generation. However, the honoree was adamant. He justly claimed that this man made him who he was, and all of his honors and accomplishments were due to this humble schoolteacher. I have all too often heard famous people denigrate those who made them who they are.
The Sfat Emet discusses the continuation of the above-mentioned pasuk: "when Pinchas acted jealously on My behalf in their midst." There are times when kana'ut or religious zeal is appropriate and necessary. It must be done with great caution and great wisdom. Who implanted this attribute in the Jewish people? Pinchas. If Pinchas was our "teacher", who taught us this entire concept of correct kana'ut, then we might think it inappropriate for the "disciples" to have complaints against him. This, too, is typical. How often does it happen that we turn to people from whom we learned and who put us on our feet and say to them, "No, we are better than you; we know how to do it better?" This is all part of the same phenomenon of the "Monday morning quarterback".
That is what happened here. It was the 'I can do it better' syndrome. That is why the verse traces the lineage of Pinchas to Aharon, to tell us that God is not pleased with such criticism. This is why we should avoid the arrogance of criticizing those who have acted sincerely. Criticism is marvelous and effective when applied with humility; it is destructive and demoralizing when employed with chutzpa.
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