Our parsha opens with the continuation of the story. But rather than criticizing Pinchas for his unbridled zealotry, G-d praises him and rewards him. Crediting Pinchas with putting an end to the debauchery, Hashem confers upon him a “covenant of peace,” invoking the name of his grandfather, effectively promoting him to the rank of a full Kohen (priest)—a position which previously been granted only to Aaron and his sons. From now on, Pinchas’ descendants, as well as any generations to follow, will carry the Priestly lineage. Chazal (our sages) even teach that the High Priests would all come from Pinchas’ line.
Does it seem fitting that an act of violence, committed rashly, would merit such a magnanimous response? Why doesn’t the Torah provide a more benign solution to the problem? Reading on, we get a little more information. We learn that the murdered Israelite was Zimri ben Salu, a leader of the tribe of Simeon. Chazal suggest that this may be a pseudonym, and that Zimri may have been none other than Shlumiel ben Tzurishaddai, the prince of the tribe. And the woman? She is identified as Cozbi, daughter a leader of Midian’s ruling class. In other words, so devious was Balak’s plan that he sent the daughters of Midian’s most prominent families to tempt and convert the best of Israel’s best. The Moabite plan, executed by the Midianites, was not intended to simply pick off a few weak-minded individuals. It was calculated to decimate the entire socio-political infrastructure of the nation by weakening the inherent sense of morality shared by the Israelites. Such is the power of an influence which, using psychology and calculation, is capable of destroying an entire nation from within. Suddenly, it becomes much easier to understand why Pinchas is lauded for his autonomic response to defend G-d, the sanctity of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and all of B’nai Israel. It also lends greater credence to the next few verses, where Israel is commanded to harass and kill Midian.
One can legitimately argue whether the ringleaders and the perpetrators deserved the same fate. Some suggest that Moab was spared here (they were already under sanctions) because Ruth was destined to descend from that nation (Rashi). Or that, with issues hinging on fundamental morality, the fact that Midian went along with the plan without keeping their moral compass trained on due north was their undoing. Whatever the case, there is certainly a strikingly contemporary lesson for today. Just like a bridge, building, or city needs a strong, well-maintained infrastructure to continue functioning, so, too, do our moral underpinnings need to be constantly refreshed and made strong. If by accident, or even worse, on purpose, we allow them to erode, the potential damage runs the risk of destroying us from the inside out. The story of Pinchas reminds us that there are times when evil must be met, brazenly and without hesitation, sometimes by an unequal, opposite force.
Simon and Garfunkel put it aptly: “Silence like a cancer grows.” There are times when we just can’t afford to be silent, .
Rabbi/Hazzan David B. Sislen