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Channeling Our Inner Pinchas

August 3, 2016

For the past few weeks, every time we’ve come together on Shabbos there has been one tragedy after another that we’ve had to commemorate.  It has been a very difficult few weeks as terror and tragedy have struck time and again.  This week we are, thank God, able to celebrate something remarkable.  It is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton was nominated as the first woman candidate from one of he major political parties the same week that we read the story of בנות צלפחד – Tzlophchad’s daugthers who are among the earliest female heroines of the Bible.  They complained to Moshe that it was not fair that they would lose out on an inheritance of the land of Israel simply because their father had only daughters and no girls.  Many see them as the original feminists.

Regardless where you stand on politics – and I’m sure there will be plenty of time to discuss our political gripes and leniencies in the coming months, it is certainly worth pausing to appreciate the greatness of this moment.  A friend made the observation that in the life of our children there is a very real possibility that they will only know of a Black president and a woman president.  And that is something worth thinking about and celebrating.

But this morning I want to talk about something else.    I want to share an amazing story that I recently heard.  It was told by a woman named Auburn Sandstrom and takes place in 1992.   I heard it on the Moth podcast (  Auburn was addicted to drugs and was in a very dark place.  Her husband  — also an addict – had gone out in search of more drugs.  Auburn would have joined him in the quest except that she was stuck at home, “taking care” of their baby son, but as she says, she was certainly not in the running for mother of the year at that point.  Auburn was going through terrible withdrawal and had hit what felt like rock bottom.  She describes her downfall from a privileged girl whose parents were always there to take care of her, replenish her bank account when it is empty, paid for her college and graduate education.  In the years since she has turned to drugs she has essentially been cut off from her parents.  Her last tangible connection is a phone number her mother sent her for a Christian counselor.  “since you can’t talk to anyone else, maybe you can talk to this person.”  So at 2:00am Auburn finally musters the courage to call the counselor.

She dials the number and after a few rings a man picks up.  “Hi, I got this number from my mother.  Do you think you could maybe talk to me?”  She hears him sit up in bed, pull the sheets around himself, turn off the TV or radio that was playing in the background and he said, “Yes.  What’s going on?”  For the first time, Auburn was able to be totally honest about how desperate her life had become as she shared her story with the man on the phone.  She admitted that she had a drug problem, that her husband was at times abusive, that she was scared.  The man stayed on the phone with her all night until the sun rose.  As the call was coming to an end she felt like she had the strength to at least make it through one more day.  And as they are about to hang up, Auburn says, “Hey, I know you’re a Christian counselor.  Do you want me to read any verses in the Bible, or talk about religion or something?”  He tried to brush it off and said “I’m glad this was helpful,” but Auburn insisted.  At which point the man said: “I’ve been trying to avoid this, and I need you to promise that you won’t hang up….That number you called.  Wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up.  She never learned his name or take any of his advice.  But that conversation helped her to turn a corner.  As she tells it, “I had experienced that there was random love in the universe, and that some of it was unconditional and that some of it was for me.”

As I heard this story, I was filled with tremendous admiration for this anonymous man on the other end of the phone.  How would I react if I got a call at 2:00am from a total stranger who is drugged out and claims to have gotten my number from her mother?  I’d probably yell at her, hang up the phone, while praying that none of my kids or my wife were bothered by the call.  I might even curse her under my breath.

How would each of you react?  No one would hold it against me, you, or even the man on the phone.

Yet hearing how the story turns out, I so desperately want to think that I wouldn’t have had the knee jerk reaction of getting angry and hanging up.  I want to think that I too would have been able to help the desperate woman on the other end to literally save her life.  The man on the phone displayed what I will refer to as a Pinchas moment.

Who was Pinchas, and what is a Pinchas moment?

Pinchas is described as a קנאי – a zealot.  He witnesses a Jewish leader sinning by having sexual relations with a non-Jewish woman in public, in front of the Mishkan.  Pinchas rises to action and kills the two of them.  For this he is praised.

פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי׃ לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם׃ וְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹהָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’” (Numbers 25:11-13)

Yet the rabbis are not fully comfortable with Pinchas and the idea of zealotry.  The Gemara (Sanhedrin 81b) that even though the Halacha is that in certain cases קנאין פוגעין בו – zealots may punish him, if someone asks what to do in one of those situations we do not instruct him to mete out punishment -.    הבא לימלך – אין מורין לו.  Furthermore, had Pinchas waited even one second longer to kill Zimri and Kozbi, he would have been deserving of death.  Had Zimri – the Jewish man engaged in the act of sin – turned around and killed Pinchas, he would have been justified.

As Maimonides writes in Hichot Issurei Bi’ah 12:5

וְאֵין הַקַּנַּאי רַשַּׁאי לִפְגֹּעַ בָּהֶן אֶלָּא בִּשְׁעַת מַעֲשֶׂה כְּזִמְרִי

The zealot is only permitted to punish them during the act of sin, as in the case of Zimri.

In our day, we are unfortunately witnessing the danger of zealotry is real.

It is also worth noting the insight of the Netziv.  We already quoted the pasuk that describes Pinchas’ reward as ברית שלום – a covenant of peace.  There are those who say the peace for Pinchas is so people will not seek retribution against him for having killed Zimri and Kosbi.  Or perhaps that he should be blessed with peace and not have to resort to violence again.  The Netziv says that the blessing of peace is directed inward, to Pinchas:

The Divine promise of a covenant of peace constitutes rather a guarantee of protection against the inner enemy, lurking inside the zealous perpetrator of the sudden deed, against the inner demoralization that such an act as the killing of a human being, without due process of law is liable to cause. (Netziv as explained by Nechama Leibowitz)

There is much anger, and understandable discomfort with the idea of zealotry.  But if all we do is point out the negative, we miss an important point.  Remember back to the story that I opened with, about the man on the phone who helped a stranger through her crisis.  We all agree that he would have been justified to hang out.  But he was able to be fully present in the moment and do the right thing.  He was able to channel his inner Pinchas.

Rav Amital z”l, the founding Rosh Yeshiva wrote the following:

In our generation the problem is that people are generally apathetic; nothing shakes their equilibrium. They view others desecrating Shabbat in public, and feel no twinge in their heart…
People become apathetic and nothing shocks them. We must feel zeal in certain areas. This does not mean that our zeal need necessarily be demonstrated outwardly – sometimes outward demonstrations only bring harm; one must know, from a halakhic point of view, when rebuke is necessary, when it is permissible, and when it is forbidden. However, all of that is only on the outside. Inside ourselves, we dare not remain apathetic. We must be zealous for God.

That is our challenge and our bracha this Shabbos.  On the one hand to have enough common sense to not be overly zealous, but at the same time to be passionate and zealous about those things for which we should be zealous.

Good Shabbos.


From → Parsha, Uncategorized

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