Parshat Pinchas תשע”ח

This week’s portion begins with Hashem praising Pinchas for the zealous act that he performed at the end of last week’s portion, Balak. Pinchas’s conduct appeased Hashem’s anger and stopped the plague that had begun. Hashem rewarded Pinchas with His covenant of peace, בריתי שלום.

But what did Pinchas do to deserve such an amazing gift – the gift of peace? He killed a man and a woman. For that he received a gift of peace? Isn’t killing the antithesis of peace? What could be the meaning of this?

Whom did he kill, and why did he kill them?

Here’s the story. After Bilam failed miserably in his attempt to curse the Jewish people, he gave Balak an alternative way to destroy the Jewish people: “Their God hates immorality! Trip them up in matters of morality, and their own God will destroy them.” This advice, unfortunately, was on the mark, and the Moabite and Midianite women successfully ensnared Jew men. Not only did many of the Jewish men fall prey to the Midianite women’s enticements, they also worshipped their idol, פעור – Peor, as well. How? Before the women would allow the men to engage in the sin, the men had to serve the idol. Because the way to worship this idol seemed to them disgusting and disrespectful to it, they thought it wasn’t forbidden. They erred in judgment, because the law is that when one worships an idol in its accepted mode of worship, no matter how disgusting it seems, it constitutes idol worship.

Angered by their conduct, Hashem sent a plague to kill them. Hashem then told Moshe to have the leaders of each tribe set up courts to judge and execute the offenders, and the plague would stop.

Moshe was at the אוהל מועד  – the Tent of Meeting, getting this done, when a man suddenly appeared before him with a Midianite woman and asked him, “Moshe, is this woman permitted to me? And if you tell me she isn’t, who permitted you to marry your wife who is also a Midianite woman?” (Of course, this was just an excuse, since Moshe married Tzipporah before the Torah was given) He then, in full view of the public, took her into his tent and began to sin with her. The man was Zimri ben Salu, a/k/a –Shlumiel ben Tzurishadai, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, and, the Midrash tells us, the woman was the very daughter of Balak, king of Moav, Kosbi bat Tzur. The stature of the perpetrators made the act ever more egregious.

Pinchas was a holy person. He was outraged, and couldn’t tolerate the dishonor and blatant disregard of Hashem and the Torah that this brazen act created. Not only was Zimri performing an abominable act with a Midianite woman, he was doing it in public.  (Although they were in a tent, everyone knew what was going on.) According to the Torah, when a Jewish man sins with a gentile woman, although a court cannot administer the death penalty, if someone catches them in the act, in public, and that person is so infuriated by the flagrant ignominy to the honor of Hashem, he may kill them. This is what happened here. Pinchas acted completely out of concern for Hashem’s honor, and, in killing them, he avenged the honor of Hashem, causing the plague to stop.

It could be compared to a king travelling through a town when a man came up to him and cursed him. Infuriated, the king was about to have the perpetrator killed when someone ran up to the perpetrator and slapped him across the face. This mollified the king, and he did not kill him.  Similarly, when Pinchas took action against the perpetrators, Hashem was mollified.

For his selfless conduct, Pinchas received the gift of peace, which means that he became a Cohen able to serve in the Tabernacle and to be an ambassador of peace between the Jewish people and Hashem, the job of all Cohanim. Although Pinchas was Aharon’s grandson and from the priestly family, when Hashem made Aharon a Cohen, only his four sons and their future children were chosen to serve in the Tabernacle with him. No other living descendants were permitted to work in the Tabernacle. Hence, until now, Pinchas was ineligible to serve in that capacity.

We understand how to restore Hashem’s honor, Pinchas’s deed constituted an act of valor. Indeed, Pinchas had actually endangered his life, for Zimri could have killed him in self-defense. But how are we to understand that for killing two people Pinchas received the covenant of peace? Hashem always rewards מדה כנגד מדה  – measure for measure. How is peace the appropriate reward for what Pinchas did?

The Talmud tells us that שלום  is one of Hashem’s names. This is important to know, because Hashem’s holy names are not to be mentioned in a bathroom. Therefore, one must be careful not to say שבת שלום  – Shabbat Shalom, or  שלום עליכם – Shalom Aleichem, in a bathroom. But, why would such a common word be the name of Hashem? This strikes us as unusual.

I heard the answer to this from my Rebbe, Harav Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל.

To be a name of Hashem, it must refer to something that only Hashem can do. If a human being is capable of doing it, it cannot be a name for Hashem. Hashem has every good quality. He is the essence of חסד – kindness, but חסד is not one of Hashem’s names, because Avraham Avinu reached the ultimate level ofחסד . Hashem is אמת  – truth,  but man can also reach a level of absolute truth. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin 97a tells us of a city called קושטא  Kushta (“truth” in Aramaic) where nobody died young.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סנהדרין דף צז/א

אמר רבא מריש הוה אמינא ליכא קושטא בעלמא אמר לי ההוא מרבנן ורב טבות שמיה ואמרי לה רב טביומי שמיה דאי הוו יהבי ליה כל חללי דעלמא לא הוה משני בדבוריה זימנא חדא איקלעי לההוא אתרא וקושטא שמיה ולא הוו משני בדיבורייהו ולא הוה מיית איניש מהתם בלא זימניה נסיבי איתתא מינהון והוו לי תרתין בנין מינה יומא חד הוה יתבא דביתהו וקא חייפא רישה אתאי שיבבתה טרפא אדשא סבר לאו אורח ארעא אמר לה ליתא הכא שכיבו ליה תרתין בנין אתו אינשי דאתרא לקמיה אמרו ליה מאי האי אמר להו הכי הוה מעשה אמרו ליה במטותא מינך פוק מאתרין ולא תגרי בהו מותנא בהנך אינשי

Rava said, “Originally, I thought there was no such thing as truth in the world, until a certain Rabbi, Rav Tavus (and some say Rav Tavyumi) told me, “If you would give me all the money in the world, I would never change my words from what actually happened. Once upon a time I went to a city called Kushta, and there, nobody ever changed their words, and nobody ever died before his time. I married a woman and had two children with her. One day, my wife was doing her hair, and a neighbor came to visit her and knocked at the door. I felt it wasn’t appropriate to tell the neighbor that my wife was doing her hair, so I said that she wasn’t home. A short time later, our two sons died. The people of the city came to us and asked, ‘What happened? How is it that your children died?’ I told them that I changed my words when I thought it was inappropriate to tell the truth. They said to us; ‘Please leave our city and don’t bring death to our people.’”

We see that truth is also something people are capable of. שלום  – peace– is something that only Hashem is capable of doing. How is that?

In our daily prayers, we quote the verse from Job (25:2) עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם בִּמְרוֹמָיו – Hashem makes peace in His high places. What is the need for peace in the high places?

Rashi explains. עושה שלום במרומיו – אש ומים בלולין ואין מים מכבין את האש  Fire and water mixed up, and the water doesn’t extinguish the fire, (and the fire doesn’t evaporate the water)

The Midrash tells us that the angels are half water and half fire, and Hashem makes peace in them. The water doesn’t extinguish the fire and the fire doesn’t evaporate the water.

ילקוט שמעוני שמות – פרק ט – רמז קפו

אפילו מלאך עצמו חציו אש וחציו מים והוא עושה שלום בו

To create peace between fire and water ––two opposing forces–– Hashem has to know the exact point, down to the molecule, at which the heat of the fire does not evaporate the water and the wetness of the water does not extinguish the fire. That line, allowing the perfect balance between these two opposite forces, is something that only Hashem can know and thus true peace is something that only Hashem can do. This is why שלום is a name for Hashem.

Wherever there are two opposing forces, there must be a balance between them, or one will eliminate the other. שלום  represents the peaceful co-existence of two opposing forces. The word שלום  – peace, is related to the word שלם , which means whole. When each component has what it needs to be complete and needs nothing from its opponent, you have peace.

This is the secret to a peaceful relationship. When each party gives the other person in the relationship all that they need to feel complete, peace has been achieved because no one has any demands on the other. But when one party needs something from the other that they are not getting, they cannot feel at peace, because they do not feel whole.

This also includes giving someone their space and not encroaching on it. This respects the idea that they are “whole” and don’t require your input.

Hashem also makes שלום  –– the proper balance–– in the entire world. The balance in creation is astounding. From the perfect balance of the planets, asteroids, and comets that orbit in our solar system, to the balance in the orbit of the electron as it circles the nucleus millions of times per second, and everything in between. In every corner of our universe, Hashem maintains the perfect balance necessary for the universe and everything in it to exist.

The earth is situated at the perfect distance from the sun. Any closer we would be toast, any farther, we would be freeze-pops. The moon is the exact size needed to create the gravitational pull on the earth to keep its axial tilt, which gives us a stable climate.

In this magnificent world that Hashem created, there are billions of creatures large and small. The large eat the small, and the small eat the smaller, and with this the balance in nature is maintained.

Scientists tell us that if not for bats, who eat millions of insects a day, we would be overrun by insects. In a recent study published in the April 2017 issue of The Science of Nature, scientists Martin Nyffeler and Klaus Birkhofer discovered that the world’s spider population, which itself weighs around 25 million tons (!), takes out between 400 and 800 million tons of prey each year, mostly insects. Can you imagine the world with 400 million more tons of insects? But, there are enough spiders to keep things in balance.

In all pristine natural habitats, each creature has its prey, and its predator. No predator proliferates enough to make his prey extinct. Once in a nature reserve, the supervisors were concerned that the natural predators would kill too many of an endangered species. They constructed a fence around the endangered animals to keep the natural predators out. After a while they discovered that more animals were dying in the enclosed area than would have died from the natural predators. An investigation revealed that the predators feed on the weak and the sick animals who cannot outrun them. By weeding out the sick animals, the healthy animals don’t get sick from the sick animals and die. But by preventing the natural predators from weeding out the sick animals, more healthy animals caught their sickness and died.

When farmers in Alabama sought to eliminate rattlesnakes, the next year they were overrun by mice.

The human body also operates on a very delicate balance. Hashem created us in a most miraculous way. Without the slightest thought, our inner organs maintain a healthy balance of chemicals in our bodies. They remove poisons, making sure that we don’t have too much sugar, too little salt, too little water. When the doctor calls you with the results of your blood test and tells you your numbers fall within the normal range, do you realize how narrow that range is? The balance is finely, crucially tuned.

The same concept applies to the tension between the spiritual and physical worlds; there must be a balance. This applies to the world at large, and to each person.

In this battle, Hashem, once again, designed the perfect balance. In the world, the Jewish nation provides the spiritual component, while the other nations provide the physical component. True, we are much smaller in number, but the power of the Torah and mitzvot of the Jewish people is so great that it sufficiently provides enough spirituality to balance the scale.

In the human being, the miraculous combination of a spiritual soul and a physical body, Hashem through the Torah provides the perfect balance. The Torah does not say, “do not indulge in anything physical in order to be spiritual,” nor does the Torah say, “enjoy all the pleasures of life to your heart’s content.” Rather, the Torah says, “enjoy the world’s pleasures but under the Torah’s guidance.” In this way, the Torah and mitzvot provide a person with the option to use physical materials and pleasures in a spiritual way. Eat to your heart’s content – but eat only kosher! Enjoy all the delicious fruits and vegetables that Hashem has given us – but make a blessing over it and use it as a means to connect to Hashem and thank Him for His kindness to you! You may accumulate wealth – but use it also to benefit others by giving a tenth to charity to help the poor and support Torah learning.

When a person fulfills the Torah’s mitzvot and lives a Torah lifestyle, he has inner peace, because both components within him are satisfied and whole. He is not neglecting his soul by overindulging his physical desires, nor is he denying himself all physical pleasures. His soul is nourished by the Torah and the mitzvot, and his physical needs are satisfied because he is enjoying the permitted pleasures.

We may not appreciate it, but with every mitzvah that we do, and with every word of Torah that we learn, we are contributing to the spiritual balance of the world. The opposite it is true also. With every sin that we do, we are also affecting the spiritual balance in the world for the worse.

When Zimri sinned in public with Kozbi, he created a tremendous imbalance in the spiritual realm. Not only was it a great sin, the example set by a person of his stature in sinning with a gentile woman, would open the floodgates for many more to follow. This was a terrible upset in the spiritual balance of the world. Through Pinchas’s zealous act, the perpetrators met their just end, and the honor of Hashem and the Torah was restored, thus reestablishing the spiritual balance. That balance is the שלום  in the world. This is why Pinchas received the gift of peace.

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