This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
פִּינְחָס ~ Pinchas
“Pinchas Gone Too Far?”
In response to the B’nei Yisrael’s inappropriate intermingling with the Moavite and Midianite women and their subsequent adoption of Ba’al Pe’or as an idolatrous god, Hashem proceeded to smite them with a deathly plague [B’Midbar 25]. The people were dropping dead until one brave and passionate zealot of G-d, Pinchas, got up and impaled one of the leading perpetrators and princes of Israel, Zimri (and his Midianite mistress Cozbi) with a spear. Despite Pinchas’s seemingly violent and controversial actions, Hashem openly affirms the correctness of his deed and praises Pinchas, awarding him with eternal Kehunah (Priesthood) and a Bris Shalom, a covenant of peace.
Evidently, the deeper message of Hashem’s appraisal of Pinchas is a response to the perceived irony in the story, that is, the public conception of peace and how Pinchas’s particular actions flew in the face of that conception. We think of peace as simply meaning not fighting and not being confrontational. We would likely suggest that any acts of violence, as a rule, interferes with the flow of peace. However, here, we’re told that in G-d’s book (literally), at least in certain circumstances, that which is provocative, inflammatory, and seemingly not peaceful to the public eye, is actually a harbinger of peace. That means, for example, that even if the B’nei Yisrael were getting along with each other and perhaps with their gentile neighbors, when they are blatantly abandoning the Will of G-d, the peace is not enduring, hence, the plague from G-d. On the other hand, Pinchas, the only one who was zealous enough to act on G-d’s behalf, went ahead and killed a man in the open, and in response, G-d basically says that Pinchas has brought peace. Apparently, what that tells us is that true peace is apparently not defined or brought about by being soft and passive per se, but rather by doing the right thing. It is the result of being zealous enough to fulfill G-d’s Will even if it means disturbing the perceived peace around you.
We could stop here and walk away with an amazing life lesson, however there is a problem. If all of the above is true, that peace is the result of zealotry for Hashem’s Will, then Hashem’s implicit rebuke of Eliyahu HaNavi generations later seems quite perplexing.
Just to get some background, Eliyahu HaNavi, much like Pinchas, was a lone zealot for G-d’s sake, standing for justice, and responding harshly to an idolatrously leaning B’nei Yisrael. As it happens, according to many, Eliyahu was a spiritual reincarnation of Pinchas, while one opinion in tradition goes as far as to say that Pinchas and Eliyahu were in fact the same person [Ralbag, Rashi to Bava Metzia 114B, Yalkut Shim’oni] (for the purposes of comparisons which our discussion will focus on, we are going to present Pinchas and Eliyahu as two different individuals).
Regardless of the actual biological or spiritual ties between Pinchas and Eliyahu, if one looks at their respective stories in Tanach, the comparison begs itself.
As far as Eliyahu HaNavi was concerned, in the times of Melachim (Kings) during the era of the wicked King Achav and Queen Izevel [Melachim 17-19], the fad of the day was the worship of Ba’al, the supposed “god of rain.” In response to the B’nei Yisrael’s worship of Ba’al, Eliyahu displayed his measure of harsh justice when he supernaturally brought a drought upon the land (to combat the “rain god”). Despite the fact that Achav and Izevel ordered the execution of all prophets of Hashem, Eliyahu would miraculously be protected from both drought and execution so that he could challenge and embarrass the false prophets of Ba’al in a showdown of offerings in the famous scene at Har HaCarmel. However, after that scene, Hashem summoned Eliyahu HaNavi to Choreiv, and it is there where Hashem apparently assessed Eliyahu’s actions.
In the vague passage, Hashem challenged Eliyahu, “Mah Lecha Poh?”-“What is for you here?”—basically asking him what his goal is. Eliyahu responded that all he sought to do was to displaying zealotry for Hashem where no one else will. Hashem responded by showing Eliyahu a strong wind, an earthquake, and a fire, and for each one, Hashem told him that He was not residing within that force, “Hashem is not in the wind…” and so forth. Finally, Hashem sounds off a “Kol D’mamah Dakah”-“still, thin voice,” and asked Eliyahu one more time, “Mah Lecha Poh?” to which Eliyahu responded with the same exact sentiment as before, that he is displaying zealotry for Hashem. Finally, Hashem instructs Eliyahu regarding his final biddings and orders him to pass on the mantle to his disciple who would replace him as the leading prophet, Elisha.
Now, beyond the mysterious imagery and general obscurity in the story, there is implied rebuke of Eliyahu for his actions and mindset. After explaining that he was zealously standing up for Hashem’s honor, G-d put on a display of harsh forces and told him that His Presence does not reside there. Apparently, these forces represent the harsh measure of justice that Eliyahu was relating to the people with. Conversely, the soft voice, we might suggest, represents the opposite of harshness, perhaps mercy and serenity, where, apparently, Hashem does reside. But of course, when given another chance and when asked the same question again, Eliyahu maintained his stance that he right to stand up for G-d’s honor. And perhaps, since Eliyahu did not get the message, Hashem revealed that his services would soon no longer be required. Apparently then, Eliyahu had done something wrong. Apparently, his zealotry in response to the idolatry on G-d’s behalf was not correct. He was too harsh.
With this background information understood, we have to wonder why Pinchas and the later Eliyahu’s respective demonstrations of Divine zealotry were received differently by Hashem. We just finished saying how peace, in G-d’s book, is apparently defined by zealotry for G-d’s “feelings.” Being attuned to G-d’s Will and doing the right thing even when it seems harsh and against the society’s opinion is the true pathway to peace. So, the question is how far this particular definition of peace goes, because apparently, Eliyahu HaNavi went a little too far. Why, then, was it that Pinchas’s zealotry for Hashem was correct while Eliyahu’s was not? Why was Pinchas granted a covenant of peace while Eliyahu was rebuked and dismissed?
But there’s more to the question. Did Eliyahu actually go too far? Was he “too harsh” when he was dealing with the B’nei Yisrael? They served idols, just like they were when Pinchas entered the scene to kill Zimri. Pinchas impaled a man and his mistress with a spear and Eliyahu “declared” a drought which G-d Himself must’ve allowed nature to perform. Moreover, Rabbi David Fohrman has noted that the drought was an appropriate response to idol worship as Hashem’s Torah itself does say that if the B’nei Yisrael serves “Elohim Acheirim”-“foreign gods,” then the heavens would be closed “V’Lo Yihiyeh Matar”-“and there would be no rain” [Devarim 11:16-17]. So, if you think about it, not only did Eliyahu necessarily act with G-d’s assistance, but he acted in accordance with G-d’s explicit words in the Torah! So, what does it mean that Eliyahu “went too far”? How could there be a “too far” when we’re talking about acting completely on G-d’s behalf and in accordance with His rules? The whole point, as we explained when G-d awarded Pinchas, is fending for G-d’s Will, regardless of the appearance of harshness. So, what made Eliyahu’s “response” so worthy of rebuke, relative to Pinchas’s actions? Wasn’t Eliyahu correct?
So, before answering these questions, we have to understand first that the assumptions of the last question really are correct. Eliyahu was completely acting in accordance with G-d’s assistance and the letter of the law. And yes, that means that in the plain sense, Eliyahu was correct, just as Pinchas was. We might suggest that these facts would explain why Eliyahu was not explicitly punished, but was rather, as we explained, merely rebuked in a coded sort of fashion. The question then is where exactly Eliyahu faltered if anywhere and what the measure of rebuke he received was for.
Again, from a simple standpoint, both Pinchas and Eliyahu had the letter of the law on their side. Rashi [B’Midbar 25:6] cites the Midrash [Tanchuma 20] which explains how Pinchas was Halachically authorized to volunteer the execution Zimri for his conjugal relations with the gentile Cozbi even outside a court setting (a law known as “Kanai’im Pog’in Bo,” literally, “Zealots may encounter him”). And we already explained that Eliyahu’s drought idea was prescribed by the Torah. Both were personally offended for G-d by the despicable acts of the B’nei Yisrael. So, what was different? If Pinchas was praised and granted peace before, what mistake did his reincarnation make?
So, when looking at the obvious parallels between Pinchas and Eliyahu’s zealousness, we have to consider a few important factors that might differentiate them, for example, (1) the context of their situations. We might also consider (2) the extent of the zealous acts in each story. Additionally, perhaps there were differences in the (3) intention or direction of the zealousness, in other words, to what end the zealousness was being displayed. So, what do these factors mean?
As far as context goes, is it at all possible that the context for the zealousness in either situation was different? Yes, both scenes included idolatry. But, think about the timing of these two idolatrous occurrences. One was in the era of the Midbar (desert) and the other in the era of the Melachim. Does that make a difference? Is the idolatry any less bad? No, but perhaps, the generation of the Midbar should have known better, especially considering that until this point, they had been clean of idolatry for the better part of forty years. However, in the times of Achav, the nation had already been reintroduced again and again to idolatry. This is not to say that they weren’t culpable, however, we’re talking now about a nation who was following the lead of the acting king at the time. Perhaps, Eliyahu’s resorting to death by drought was a little bit extreme, because although we might argue that the Torah already promised a drought, until Eliyahu “made it so,” albeit with G-d’s help, G-d Himself had not decided on the drought. Was G-d, perhaps, originally considering having more patience for a spiritually weaker generation? Perhaps, but of course, Eliyahu had already been decided.
And in a similar vein, consider how in Pinchas’s situation, it was only after a plague had ensued that Pinchas actually responded to the sins he witnessed and, in turn, saved the nation. On the other hand, in Eliyahu’s situation, G-d Himself had not yet targeted the people. In fact, Eliyahu did so all on his own, and Hashem merely followed his lead.
Consider now the extent of the two zealous acts. Yes, Pinchas’s act of impaling Zimri was a more direct action; however, Eliyahu’s was considerably more far-reaching, as his “drought” would kill not merely two people, but a portion of the masses.
With these two factors explained, we can now turn to the intention or the direction of the zealous acts. It’s not always easy to pin down an individual’s intention, especially if the intentions are not specified, as in Pinchas’s situation. That’s why we need information such as context or extent to help fill in those blanks. In this light, Pinchas’s act seems to have been, in part, for the sake of atoning for the B’nei Yisrael as Hashem testifies it did. He did not merely seek to punish the perpetrators, because indeed, there were many perpetrators that he did not target, and there was already a plague killing out those perpetrators (which perhaps would’ve hit Zimri as well). That information, paired with Hashem’s praise of Pinchas, should lead us to the conclusion that there was apparently a peaceful end which Pinchas’s sought out through his momentarily violent act.
What about Eliyahu’s intentions? Sure, his context might’ve had more room for patience, and perhaps the extent of his zealous act was far-reaching, but certainly his intention was, exactly as he said it, to avenge Hashem’s honor—just like Pinchas’s were. How can the intentions be any purer or more just?
The answer is: Yes, of course, Eliyahu was completely justified according to the letter of the law. Again, that is why G-d ultimately complied. That is why Eliyahu wasn’t explicitly punished. That is why even G-d’s rebuke of Eliyahu was implied through subtle imagery. BUT, sometimes, even being one hundred percent correct according to the letter of the law can be against the Hashem’s even higher “hopes” to act “Lifnei Meshuras HaDin” (beyond the letter of the law), against His “hopes” that the spiritual leaders consider the welfare of His children. Yes, His children sinned, and yes, they are culpable, and yes, anyone who witnesses the betrayal against Hashem should be infuriated on Hashem’s behalf, BUT, even all measures of retribution, even the harshest, have to be intended and directed, not merely with Hashem’s honor in mind, but with the greatest of love and concern for His children whom He cares more for than His own honor.
Coming back to Pinchas, even while sacrificing the public conception of “peace” for G-d’s honor, Pinchas did not completely lose hope in achieving peace for the B’nei Yisrael. He acted with justice, but apparently yearned for the B’nei Yisrael’s peace. He acted harshly, spontaneously, and passionately, yet with the higher goal in mind. This end of love and mercy was lost amidst Eliyahu’s zealotry. Whether a reincarnation of Pinchas or even Pinchas himself, Eliyahu had, in some sense, taken the fiery passion and zeal for Hashem too far—not passed the letter of the law, but passed the higher ideal. He got so caught up in Hashem’s honor that he disregarded Hashem’s unending love for the B’nei Yisrael. If that’s the case, then to what end was Eliyahu acting zealously on Hashem’s behalf, other than the end of the B’nei Yisrael as a people?
At the end of the day, as upsetting as that all sounds, not all hope is lost. Because if one thinks about it, although in his human flesh lifetime, Eliyahu HaNavi was a harsh prosecutor of the B’nei Yisrael, in his angelic afterlife, Eliyahu would improve himself roaming the world acting as the great defender of Klal Yisrael, as is depicted so often in Chazzal (see the Zohar who teaches something to this effect). That means that eventually, Eliyahu redirected himself to his Pinchas-roots and refocus his Hashem-centered passion on Hashem’s higher Will. It is with this re-centered zeal that Eliyahu HaNavi will continue to mercifully fend for us and usher in the Moshiach speedily in our days!
May we all be Zocheh to not only zealously empathize with Hashem’s “feelings” and act on His behalf, but to always do so with the loving and peaceful intentions for all of Hashem’s children, and Hashem should send Pinchas/Eliyahu HaNavi to our aid with the Geulah as he ushers in Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂