At the end of last weeks parasha (Parashat Balak) the events of Shittim are described in great detail:
“Behold! A man of Bnei Yisrael came and brought a Midianite woman near to his brothers in front of Moshe and in front of the entire assembly of the Children of Isreal; and they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of meeting (Ohel Moed).
And Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen saw, and he stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced both the Israelite man and the women into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the Children of Israel.”
(Bamidbar Chapter 25 Verses 6-8)
The above verses describe how, in a shocking exhibit of brazenness, a Jew brought his paramour directly to Moshe Rabbeinu and to the elders, at the entrance of the Ohel Moed, and sinned in public view.
The Rambam in his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim (1:36) states; that sexual morality is a foundation of Jewish holiness and that the only times that the Torah speaks of Hashem’s anger as “wrath”, is when it is provoked by immorality.
This according to our Rabbis was the intent of the Moavim. Having failed in their attempts to curse Israel, they henceforth, successfully, aimed to damage Israel by straining the relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael by enticing them into an atmosphere of promiscuity and immorality. As the acts of promiscuity increased a plague broke out amongst the people, killing twenty-four thousand.
Though the event essentially began with the enticement of the general population of Am Yisrael by Moabite women, it ended at the Ohel Moed when a man of Bnei Yisrael acted immorally with a Midianite woman, in front of the holiest leaders of Israel, in the holiest place in the entire camp of Israel.
It was then that Pinchas, as it were, took the initiative and killed the sinners on the spot. The immediate result was the cessation of the plague brought about through the promiscuity of the people, and spiritual control being reestablished over the population as a whole.
Hashem at the beginning of this week’s parasha applauds the zealous act of Pinchas, he is given a special covenant a “Brit Shalom”. Pinchas had put an end to a devastating plague that had taken 24,000 lives in retribution for the orgy of immorality with the Moabite and Midianite women. Yet, the people, instead of applauding him, as Hashem did, actually accused him of wanton murder. There was a need for Hashem to make public His absolute support for this spontaneous act of zeal, He does so by giving Pinchas a Brit Shalom, and that seems to be the end of the affair.
However, with the events concluded, with Pinchas vindicated, the parasha ends with what appears to be superfluous detail:
“The name of the slain Israelite man who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, President of a father’s house of the tribe of Shimon. And the name of the slain Midianite woman was Cozbi daughter of Tsur, who was head of the peoples of a father’s house in Midian.” (Bamidbar Chapter 25 Verses 14 and 15)
The Or Hachaim Hakadosh questions the relevance of these details. Why do we need to know the names of the perpetrators of such an immoral act? Quite the contrary, on a number of similar occasions in the past, the Torah has gone to great lengths to protect the identity of a specific sinner – the most obvious case that immediately comes to mind is that of the “Mekoshesh Aitzim” (Bamidbar Chapter 15 Verses 32-36) who was killed for an act of chillul Shabbat but was nevertheless left in anonymity to protect his name and his family’s prestige. Hashem has mercy even on the wicked, so what do we gain by divulging the names of the guilty parties at the closing of the episode?
The Or Hachaim answers that the identity of those involved in this instance is of specific importance to us because it sheds light on the greatness of the act of Pinchas, it in fact gives us an incredible insight as to the level of dedication that Pinchas had towards HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
Even had the people involved just been normal run of the mill individuals, the act of Pinchas took great courage. Essentially, there were greater leaders above him in the higher echelons of the hierarchical infrastructure of Bnei Yisrael. While all stood still, Pinchas took the initiative, he preempted Moshe Rabbeinu, Yehoshua Bin Nun, Elazar HaCohen, to name but a few. In order to sanctify Hashem’s name, and in order to avoid further desecration of Hashem’s name, Pinchas swept aside the normal halachik procedure and acted on instinct.
Yet that wasn’t the only aspect of courage, the verse goes on to describe to us that the victims of Pinchas’s zeal were in fact very important individuals. Zimri was a leader in the tribe of Shimon, and Cozbi who was in fact a Moabite Princess.
Pinchas overcame all of the peer pressure involved in order to do the right thing. In order to sanctify Hashem’s name, he was prepared to face all of the consequences – public pressure could not deviate this man from doing what was necessary.
When dealing with the parasha of Pinchas one has to be extremely careful. Pinchas is actually the exception to the rule; no society can exist if each and every individual takes the law into his own hands. It would be fatal for us as a people if each of us considered himself to be a “Pinchas”, and acted according to his religious impulse whenever he saw fit to do so. We are also clearly not living at a time when we can in any way be compared to the spiritual level of a leader such as Pinchas. Nevertheless, there are still many lessons to be learnt from the selflessness of Pinchas, and his absolute dedication to truth.
We are required to sanctify the name of Hashem wherever we are and whenever we can. Yet so often we fail to do so because we lack the courage that the acts of Pinchas taught us. We lack the strength to do the right thing; because we are afraid of peer pressures; because we are afraid of what “important” people will say, of how our actions will be interpreted. Yet in truth if the Halacha demands something of us then that is what we must do whether people think positively of us or not. There is obviously a way to do things, and we must think exactly how to do what must be done in the most effective way, however, we must never be deterred from doing the right thing despite the inconveniences that often come with taking the right stand. This is not only true on an individual level; it is vital on a National level too.
The State of Israel exists today (Bezrat Hashem), specifically because the Nations of the World could not deter our leaders from doing what was in the best interest of our country. There will always be people of status trying to deter us from our mission, but we must stand firm and do what must be done.
If Or Hachaim explained the need to name the perpetrators in order to clearly show the strength of character that Pinchas had against the obvious psychological disadvantage that comes when challenging men of stature. Malbim explains slightly differently.
The Malbim suggests that the names of Zimri and Cozbi are mentioned in order to describe the tremendous physical courage that Pinchas showed. By killing a head of a tribe, Pinchas essentially became the enemy of that tribe in its entirety. By killing a princess of Moab, at a time of “official peace” Pinchas became an assassin in the eyes of the Moabites.
Yet despite the ensuing physical danger that would be a definite direct consequence of his act, he was not to be deterred. Pinchas acted on his own initiative, the endorsement of Hashem came only in the aftermath. Nevertheless this man of truth, was prepared to accept upon himself the dire repercussions of his actions whatever they would be – there cannot be a greater and more pure Kiddush Hashem than this.
In summary, both Or Hachaim, and Malbim understand the need to name the perpetrators of this terrible act of promiscuity, in order to show in absolute terms the greatness of the act of Pinchas.
Yet there is another possible approach to understanding why the identity of these people is of such importance. By revealing the perpetrator, we also identify his tribe – the tribe of Shimon. It cannot go unnoticed that in this event we have a meeting of two tribes who were once seemingly inseparable – Pinchas from the tribe of Levi and Zimri from the tribe of Shimon.
In Bereishit Chapter 34 Verse 25, we are told how Shimon and Levi the brothers, joined together in order to save their sister Dina in Shechem. Rashi and other Rishonim are clear that they understand Shimon and Levi to have been the instigators in the attempt to kill Yosef – this is also hinted to by the fact that Yosef specifically separated Shimon from Levi when the brothers met with him for the first time in Egypt. Shimon was left in jail, whilst the other brothers were sent back home to bring Binyamin.
What began as a partnership, as a real brotherhood, ends in our parasha, with Pinchas “Levi” killing Zimri “Shimon’.
The Netsiv in Bereishit Chapter 34 Verse 25 commenting on the words “two children of Yaakov Shimon and Levi” notes that the number two is superfluous; it is plain to see that Shimon and Levi are two in number. The Netsiv therefore concludes that the verse is coming to teach us something of great importance.
Even though it appears at first glance that Shimon and Levi were one and the same, fired up with the same motivation, the truth is quite the opposite. They were in fact two very different people. Shimon was driven by a human emotion out of control in order to defend the “family name”. Levi, on the other hand was driven by his commitment to Am Hashem and the purity of Am Yisrael. They were involved in the same act; they teamed up, but with very different motives.
By naming Zimri and his tribe, the Torah in retrospect sheds light on the past. Maybe they were inseparable in the past, but not because they had the same motives, in the past it was a coalition of convenience. Now however, these two giants are at odds with each other, and it is Levi who overcomes Shimon.
Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, in his comments at the end of Bereishit disagrees with the evaluation of the Netziv.
When “blessing” his sons, Yaakov tells Shimon and Levi that they will be dispersed among Israel (Bereishit Chapter 49 Verse 7). Most commentators understand this to be the ultimate punishment for their acts in Shechem. However, our Rabbis tell us that Yaakov in fact blessed Shimon and Levi that because of their zeal they should be dispersed among Israel, they should use their natural zeal in education and spirituality.
According to Rav Yaakov, the two brothers were very similar; they had a burning zeal, a belief driven by great enthusiasm. Clearly differing from the Netziv, Rav Kaminetsky stresses that these brothers were one and the same, they had the same motive in saving Dina, and in all of their joint actions, their motivation was always “leshem Shamayim”.
Yet if we accept the words of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, what went wrong? How did these two zealous sons, partners in everything, take such different paths? Levi did in fact realize his fathers blessing, his tribe became the spiritual center of Am Yisrael. Yet with Shimon quite the opposite happened.
Rav Yaakov explains beautifully that both sons had the same raw potential, however that potential had to be nurtured and developed over the years.
Whilst in Egypt, the tribe of Levi were not slaves, they were the spiritual leaders of Am Yisrael. This role became even more emphasized when the leaders to be Moshe and Aharon came from that very tribe. From then onwards (excepting the events of Korach) the Leviim were always defenders of Hashem. At the Golden Calf it was the Leviim who showed the initial support for Moshe, and throughout our time in the midbar it was the Leviim who spiritually held us together.
Shimon, on the other hand, never lost the burning zeal, however, they did lose direction. Shimon were slaves in Egypt, and upon leaving Egypt, the tribe had no special role to play. Thus with no real direction for their energies, they eventually burst forth in the negative events of Peor, the only tribe that could stop that zeal was a tribe with similar zeal – the tribe of Levi – Pinchas.
Henceforth, the zealousness of Shimon would become under the direct control of Yehuda, those two tribes came together, the leadership of Yehuda, and the energy of Shimon would, in time, bring about Malchut Yisrael.
If we take the words of Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, we can see that there is enormous importance in revealing the identity of the perpetrator in our parasha. It serves as a contrasting factor between Shimon and Levi, and serves to remind us that raw potential is not enough; it must be channeled in the correct way in order to realize what should truly be realized.