Pinchas: Violence or Genuine Zealotry

Today it is not a compliment to be branded as a “zealot”. In today’s world where Torah concepts have been distorted, the zealot is synonymous with the “hothead” who can’t control himself, or the rowdy thug looking for some “action”. One thing is for sure: the zealot does not convey an impression of someone coolheaded and composed, tolerant and amiable.

And behold, “Pinchas Ben Elazar Ben Aaron the Cohen”. The verse intentionally traces Pinchas’s lineage back to the beloved Aaron the Cohen, lover and pursuer of peace. Indeed, we find this very quality in Pinchas as well in the Book of Joshua, chapter 23. There it is told how the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Menashe build an altar on the eastern side of the Jordan. Since only one public altar is permitted and already exists in Shilo, the rest of the tribes suspect that this altar, built on the other side of the Jordan, constitutes a rebellion against G-d. Instinctively, the tribes prepare to wage war against them. A real crisis is developing – a potential civil war. Who do they send to settle the problem and maintain law and order? None other than Pinchas Ben Elazar Ben Aaron the Cohen! He’s a zealot. He’ll show ’em! Pinchas arrives in Eretz Gilad, and after checking out the situation from up close, he finds out that the altar is only a symbolic one, and is not halachically prohibited. The tribes, who were preparing to go to war against them in order “to reproof them and to burn out the evil from their midst, for thus is the way of Torah” (see Ralbag, there), decide not to, because Pinchas tells them that everything isO.K. He sends everyone home and they all live happily ever after…

Pinchas exemplifies the true zealot. The same Pinchas who knew when to rise up and with his own hands kill a leader of a tribe of Israel, also knew when to prevent bloodshed and bring peace to the Jewish People. Pinchas was a true zealot and a man of “halacha”, and acted accordingly in both instances. He was not someone just looking to let off steam. Such a fellow is a hothead, not a zealot. A real zealot is zealous for Hashem – whether it be for peace or for war, depending on what the Jewish law calls for. This was the root of the problem regarding the deed of Shimon and Levy in Shchem. Without question, their deed sanctified G-d’s Name, and thus on the flag of Shimon appeared a picture of the city of Shchem. The only problem was the motive that lied behind their action. How do we know? For the same Shimon and Levy who wiped out Shchem were also ready to kill their brother Joseph. This meant that their motive in Shchem was tarnished, since there was obvioulsy a flaw in their character traits if they were willing to do away with Joseph in the same way as they would the hostile residents of Shchem. They exhibited rowdy tendencies, and for this Yaakov rebuked them bysaying, “cursed is their ANGER,” since he wanted them to act soley for G-d’s sake, and not because of hot-temperdeness or any other flawed character traits. It is interesting to point out that Zimri Ben Salu, the Jewish leader who prostituted himself, was from the tribe of Shimon. Pinchas, who was zealous against such lewdness, and afterwards for peace, came from the tribe of Levy. A zealot and son of a zealot – BUT THIS TIME WITH PURE MOTIVES. The tribe of Levy succeeded in sublimating it’s trait of anger, thereby purifying it’s motives as Yaakov requested, as we also witness in their slaying of the mixed multitude which incited the Jewish People to idol worship at the Golden Calf incident. Shimon apparently could not straighten out his character traits, falling victim to the very same sin he was once zealous for.

This is what lies behind the argument in the Gemorah (Zevachim, 101), “Rabbi Elazar said that Rabbi Chanina said: Pinchas was not given the Priesthood until after killing Zimri. Rav Ashi said: After he made peace among the tribes”. For only after proving that he is capable of making “Shalom Bayit” in the House of Israel with “Darke Noam”, then and only then was it clear that his character attributes were virtuous, and his motive in killing Zimri was also pure and for G-d’s sake only.

Vayishlach: Shimeon and Levy & Collective Punishment

The act of Shimeon and Levy in Shchem bears light on a subject so relevant today in our dealings with the Arab enemy. And the subject is the one called “collective punishment”. For here is Shimeon and Levy, in response
to a crime which was more sexually motivated than nationally motivated, wiping out an entire city because of the act of one individual. You can’t get much more collective than that!

At this juncture, we will not respond to the modern falsifiers of Torah who condemn the act. The fact is, a look in Parshat Vayishalch will reveal that Yaakov never condemned the act on a moral basis, but rather on a practical
basis (“you have brought trouble on me..and I being few in number, they shall gather themselves against me..”). The fact is, not one Torah commentator condemns it. The wiping out of Shchem was the pride of the tribe of Shimeon, inscribed on its flag in the desert! All the commentators see the act as a mitzvah and one of great m’sirut nefesh. The only argument among the commentators is concerning the question of why it was permitted?

The Rambam for instance, writes that the gentiles of Shchem were guilty for not observing the seven Noacide Laws – one of these laws being the obligation to set up court systems to try criminals. Since the people of
Shchem did not bring Shchem Ben Hamor to trial, they were obligated the death penalty. The Maharal differs. He says that since the people of Shchem feared their prince, they were forcibly prevented from bringing him to
trial, and were therefore dismissed from guilt. Then why was Shimeon and Levy permitted to collectively punish an entire city? The Maharal answers: “Since both the Shchem Canaanites and Yaakov & sons were were already
considered ‘nations’ or ‘collectives’ (as was mentioned in their agreement to circumcise, ‘and we will be as one nation’, instead of two nations), it was permitted to fight against them according to the laws of war, when
nation goes against nation, as a collective. And though it is written that before such a war, one must make the offer of peace, that is only when they did not harm Israel. But here, where they violated (a Jewish girl), even though only one of them did it, he is part of a collective, and one can take vengeance against all of them. And such is the case for all wars, as it says, ‘Take vengeance against the Midyanites’, etc, where even though only a few did (evil), it makes no difference because they are from the same nation..and such is the case in all wars… (Gur Aryeh, Parshat

Vayishlach: The Killing of the Shchem Residents: A Torah Perspective

Two zealots are focused upon in our parsha: Shimeon and Levy. And the eternal question is if they were correct in their deed or not. This parsha has certainly been one of the more misinterpreted portions in the Torah in modern times, and as a consequence, so many improper conclusions have been drawn from it.

Why is that? Because indeed, there are verses in the Torah, which at first glance view the act of Shimeon and Levy as a mistake. One who reads Parshat Vayichi can easily reach the conclusion that the question is answered by Yaakov, when he says, “Cursed be their anger for it was fierce…” These words are directed at the actions of Shimeon and Levy in Shchem, and such words certainly seem to put the deed in a negative light. And so, this is how so many love to interpret the parsha, thereby condemning the brothers Shimeon and Levy as if they sinned in Shchem.

The Act of Shchem – The Pride of the Tribe of Shimeon!

But in contrast to this simplistic understanding, there are tremendous questions. Firstly, one who reads Parshat Vayishlach will notice that the Torah finishes the story with Shimeon and Levy having the upper hand. For in response to Yaakov’s argument that “you have troubled me, to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land”, Shimeon and Levy promptly answer him: “As a harlot should one deal with our sister?” And so the parsha ends, without a peep from Yaakov, with the brothers clearly putting the matter at rest. And indeed, the argument of Yaakov, that “you have troubled me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land” seems to fall flat on its face, as the Almighty puts fear of G-d upon all the inhabitants of the cities from which Yaakov was afraid of. Could this not be a clear sign that the Almighty was giving an O.K. to the deed?

More than that, pay attention to the argument of Yaakov. He is not opposing them on a “moral” basis. He is not criticizing them for wiping out an entire city unjustly. No! This is not his argument. His is a PRACTICAL one – that all the goyim will come after us now. And if one is not yet convinced, know what it says in the Midrash – that on the flag of Shimeon was nothing more and nothing less than a PICTURE OF THE CITY OF SHCHEM! Now ask yourselves: How could one have on his flag a symbol of something that reminded him of his sin? But certainly the act of Shimeon and Levy was a correct and positive act, to such an extent that it waves proudly on the flag of Shimeon.

The fact is that none of the Jewish commentators condemn the act. Forexample, Rambam explains that Shimeon and Levy were justified because the people of Shchem did not put Shchem Ben Hamor on trial for his crime of raping Dina, thus violating the seven laws of Bnei Noach, and therefore being worthy of death. The Maharal argues with the Rambam, stating that one can’t expect a people to put it’s prince on trial, because they are afraid of him. He therefore offers an alternative explanation. The Maharal says that the children of Israel behaved as in all wars, where there is a law of collective punishment, and even though one is supposed to call for peace first, this is only when you were not wronged by them. But since in this case, they ‘broke the fence” first with their rape of Dina, one needn’t call them to peace. (Gur Aryeh, Vayishlach)

And so, all this makes us quite curious to know why Yaakov said in Parshat Vayichi: “Cursed is their anger for it was fierce”?

The Act – Good. The Motive – Not So Good.

The answer to this question touches upon the deep and delicate subjectconcerning the MOTIVE that stands behind the actions of a person. Yaakov, in his wisdom, evidently understood that while the act of Shimeon and Levy was a Kiddush Hashem, he also came to the conclusion later on that the motive standing behind the deed was not 100% pure. When did Yaakov understand this? When it became clear that the major culprits in the selling of Yosef were the same Shimeon and Levy (as the sages tell us in another place), Yaakov knew that their zealotry was not always
channeled in the proper direction. He said to them: “For in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed an ox”. Rashi tell us that the “men” they slew were Hamor and the men of Shchem, and the “ox” they houghed was Yosef, who was termed “ox”. This was the problem. After being zealous for a good cause, they went out later to hurt their brother. The act of plotting to kill Yosef shed light on their act in Shchem. It meant that their motive there was somehow flawed; and they were not acting solely “LeShame Shamayim”. It showed that there was a characteristic of anger in them, not always directed properly. And so Yaakov said “cursed is their anger, for it is fierce.” Yaakov did not curse them, but rather their anger, to tell us that they are not cursed, but only “their anger” is. That is, the use of the attribute of zealousness derived from anger, not “Leshame Shamayim”.

Interestingly enough, we see that the tribe of Levi indeed succeeded incleansing their motives, and acting “LeShame Shamayim”. It was they who slew their brethren for the sin of the Golden Calf, and it was Pinchas who was also zealous for G-d’s sake, slaying Zimri. Zimri Ben Salu, the Jewish leader who prostituted himself, was from the tribe of Shimeon. Pinchas, who was zealous against such lewdness came from the tribe of Levy. A zealot and son of a zealot – but this time with absolutely pure motives. The tribe of Levy succeeded in sublimating it’s attribute of
anger, thereby purifying it’s motives as Yaakov requested. Shimeon apparently could not straighten out his “middot”, falling victim to the very same sin he was once zealous for.

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