Weekly Torah Commentary – Pinchas July 29, 2016

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

To properly appreciate this week’s lesson we need to go back to the end of last week’s Torah portion.  Zimri, from the tribe of Shimon, takes Cosbi, a daughter of the king of Midian and in direct defiance of Moses, the Torah and the Tabernacle, has public sexual relations with this non-Israelite right in front of the Tabernacle – a shocking and horrifying act.  At the same time, a plague was spreading through the camp so that 24,000 people had already died.

Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron the High Priest, rose up from the midst of the congregation, took a spear and thrust it through the cavorting couple.  The plague was stopped and as this week’s Torah portion opens, we learn that the Lord was pleased with Pinchas’ action.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned away My wrath from the sons of Israel in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not destroy the sons of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, Behold I give him My covenant of peace; and it shall be for him and his descendants after him, a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the sons of Israel.’ Numbers 25: 10-13

Remember that last week, after Bilam was prevented from cursing the children of Israel, he and Balak colluded to destroy Israel another way: by having the women of Moab seduce the men of Israel and cause them to worship idols.

Zimri was among the men who had by this time lost all respect for God, Moses and the Torah.  His blatant immorality was pure hedonism, the pursuit of selfish indulgence.  It was a public act flaunting his disrespect.  We may be tempted to view the response of Pinchas as fanaticism but in fact, perhaps neither his nor Zimri’s should surprise us.

We are told that Zimri was from the tribe of Shimon and Pinchas was a Levite, the grandson of Aaron. Now think back with me to the book of Genesis.

After Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was violated, it was Shimon and Levi who joined together to vent their unbridled rage on the men of Shechem after they had all been circumcised. On the third day which is the most painful, Shimon and Levi descended into the city by night and slew all the men of Shechem to avenge their sister’s violation.  To them, the rape of Dinah was more than personal, more than familial; it was a national insult.

Later in Genesis, when Jacob is on his deathbed he pronounces prophetic blessings over his twelve sons.  Of Shimon and Levi, he says:

Shimon and Levi are brothers; their swords are implements of violence. Let me soul not enter into their council; let not my glory be united with their assembly; because in their anger they slew men and in their self-will they lamed oxen. Cursed be their anger for it is fierce; and their wrath for it is cruel.  I will separate them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.  Gen. 48: 5-7

Jacob decreed that they should be separated for whenever these two got together, it never ended well!

As we follow the tribe of Levi through the Torah, we read that after the Golden Calf, it was the Levites that gathered around Moses and like their descendant, Pinchas, at Moses’ command they slew all who had been involved in the episode of the Golden Calf.  They were passionate for the Lord’s honor.

In 150 BC, the Maccabees were also from the tribe of Levi.  Incensed at the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus, they launched a bloody revolt against the Seleucids.  Again, Levites; again, passionate for the honor of the Lord.

So we have two tribes, both passionate and both easily moved to intense responses to situations. Their challenge was to turn that passion and anger into love.

Over time, the tribe of Levi learned to direct their passion for the honor of God in a righteous anger that exercised judgment for the Lord’s sake.  The anger of Shimon by contrast was loosed for negative and self-serving reasons.  Levi moved toward greatness; Shimon toward destruction.

Fast forward to our present situation. Pinchas, a Levite, receives as a reward for his action, a covenant of peace from the Lord.

But later when Joshua divided the land among the tribes of Israel,Shimon received only a small piece of land within the region given to Judah.  In the census that is taken right after the event of this week’s reading, the tribe of Shimon is listed as having only 22,000 members yet in the previous census Shimon had 59,000 members.  It is the only tribe that decreases in size.  Therefore it is safe to assume that most of the 24,000 who died in the plague were from the tribe of Shimon.


Greatness is the result of taking our natural traits and turning them into virtue.  Great passion can become the kind of zeal for God which Pinchas demonstrated – or – it can lead to deeply destructive behavior.  The choice is ours.

At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses, like Jacob before him, pronounces a blessing on the tribes of Israel. Sadly, Shimon is the only tribe that does not receive a blessing from Moses. The tribe of Shimon was scattered across the known world and still waits for its full redemption.


In Tune with Torah this week: there is a righteous anger and there is an unrighteous anger.  It is critical that we know the difference between the two.  Righteous anger is other-centered; unrighteous anger is self-centered.

For example, to be angry at the senseless slaughter of innocent civilians in a terrorist attack is a righteous anger.  But to be enraged at a personal insult to the extent of pursuing the opportunity to exact revenge simply for the purpose of inflicting pain on the offender is an unrighteous anger.

May God give us grace to know the difference and apply this lesson to our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom


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