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.

Vayechi: Sometimes, It’s Good to Be Deaf

Even after Yaakov died, Esau continued to seek revenge against him for the taking of the birthright, attempting even to sabotage his burial in the Cave of the Patriarchs. The Gemora (Sota, 13) recounts how the children of Yaakov arrived at the cave to bring their father to burial, and behold they found Esau waiting for them there, with some interesting “news”: The remaining burial plot in the cave belongs to me. The stunned sons tried to remind Esau that he sold the spot to Yaakov. After an exchange of words (brought down in the Gemora), it was agreed that Naftali would run to Egypt and bring the document confirming that the burial plot was indeed sold to Yaakov. In the meantime, they waited…

One of those waiting was Hushim, the son of Dan. Hushim was deaf, andtherefore did not hear the discussion that had taken place between thebrothers and Esau. At a certain point, he asked them what is happening. The brothers told him that Esau is delaying the burial, and everyone is waiting for Naftali. Hushim was shocked: “And all the while that Naftali is in Egypt, my grandfather will lie here in dishonor!?” He immediately took a stick in his hand, struck Esau in the head, and killed him. The story concludes with Esau’s eyes falling out of their sockets by the legs of Yaakov, and on this it is written, “Happy is the righteous who saw vengeance, he will wash his palms (of his legs) in the blood of the wicked.”

A question must be asked here: Why of all people, was it the grandson Hushim ben Dan who reacted this way? Why was HE shocked at was happening, and arose to wipe out the reproach? Did not the rest of the sons care about Yaakov’s honor? Where was Yehuda, or the zealots Shimeon and Levy, for example?

From here we learn an awesome lesson which is especially related to matters of national honor and “Kiddush Hashem”. The difference between Hushim ben Dan and the rest of the sons of Yaakov was that Hushim was the only one who was not involved in the negotiations with Esau. Psychologically, the moment you hear out the other party and weigh his point of view, even the most outrageous claim begins to be “understood”. The very discussing of it desensitizes you, and gets you used to the idea.

Without a doubt, if someone were to tell the sons of Yaakov before hand that Esau is waiting for them in the Cave of the Patriarchs to thwart the burial of their father, they would boil over with holy rage, and guarantee that they know how to deal with the situation.

But what happened was that the moment they arrived, Esau stated his case: “It’s mine”. Sure the sons of Yaakov were shocked and angry, but it is human nature not to want to leave an argument or claim unanswered, without an appropriate rebuttal. And so they reminded him that he sold it. Esau immediately countered: I only sold the birthright, not the grave, etc. At this point, too, the brothers know that Esau is wrong, but in any case, he makes an argument which demands some kind of answer. And most important of all: At this stage, the sons of Yaakov find themselves in the heat of a negotiation process. An onlooker from the side can easily get the impression that both sides make reasonable claims. They would certainly have great difficulty realizing that what we have here is a scoundrel whose entire goal is to degrade Yaakov.

In contrast, the deaf Hushim ben Dan cannot hear all the claims. He knows only one thing: “Grandfather is lying here in disrespect!”. Sure, Yaakov’s sons knew exactly what kind of derelict, cheater and murderer Esau was. But because they entered into negotiations with him, they began to think that perhaps he is sincere this time, and said to themselves: all we need to do is to convince him that we are right, and everything will be O.K. But Hushim did not have the opportunity to become “convinced” of the justice of Esau’s wicked and bogus claims, and he did not understand how his brothers allowed this low-life to delay, even for a moment, the burial of Yaakov, the father of our nation. And so he arose and took action!

Sometimes, it is forbidden to negotiate. What’s so bad about it? After all, you are only talking! But no! For even if you know that your “partner” is a liar with evil intentions, you begin to “understand” him and think there might be “something” to what he is saying after all.

Unfortunately, for years we have been exposed to the lies and falsehood of our enemies. Recently, even those faithful to Eretz Yisrael are beginning to “adjust to the realities”. We have grown used to things that would never have entered our minds only a few years ago. G-d forbid! Let us be zealous for truth, and not have inferiority complexes when facing false claims from the lowest of peoples. We are right! It is our land, and no foreign nation shall dwell in it!

Vayechi: What Makes Samson Such a Hero?

When Yaakov Avenu blesses Dan, the sages tell us that through “Ruach HaKodesh”, Yaakov saw Samson wreaking havoc upon the Philistines, and thought that he was the Messiah. Only after seeing Samson die did a disappointed Yaakov realize that Samson was not the Messiah, and thus he uttered the words in our parsha, “I waited for your salvation, Oh Lord”.

Even for those not so well-versed in the Bible, Samson has become a household name. He is the stereotype of the ‘mighty hero”. Is this characterization a correct one, or a misconception of the masses? What gives Samson his superstar status, making him easily the most popular and widely know Judge? If it is for his brute physical strength, the sages surprise us by telling us that Samson was lame! Why would they say such a thing if not to remove from our minds the image of a macho-muscle-man.

Perhaps one might want to say that Samson fulfilled the definition of “hero” (gibor, in Hebrew) according to “Pirke Avot”: “Who is a ‘gibor’? He who conquers his evil inclination”. Without delving too deep into Samson’s deeds and motives with women, one can safely say that he was not exactly a symbol of the “Tzadeek” who overcame his “Yaizer” (evil inclination). The sages tell us clearly: “Samson went after his eyes, and thus his eyes were gouged out by the Philistines.”

Must we then conclude that the popularity surrounding the figure of Samson today is due to the fact that somehow, his persona “caught on” more than other heroic figures in the Bible? Is Samson’s popularity amongst the masses simply a product of media-hype? After all, Devora, Yiftach, Gideon and every other Judge certainly killed a lot more of the enemy than Samson did. Killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass is quite an accomplishment, but it hardly rates with the electrifying and decisive victories of the other Judges that ruled before him. In fact, when the Bible tells us that the “dead that he slew in his death were more than he slew in his life” – it is not meant as a compliment, but rather as a commentary that Samson did not put up the “big numbers” like the other Judges did.

And so again, is Samson, the darling of the masses, somehow overrated? Let us not jump to hasty conclusions! After all, we opened this article by saying that Yaakov Avenu himself saw Samson’s potential to be the Messiah. In addition, in comparison to all the other Judges mentioned in the Book of Judges, Samson has by far the most space allotted to him. This brings us to another difficult question. During his lifetime, Samson was scorned by his own people to such an extent that we find no parallel to it with any other Judge. At one point, fellow Jews even turn him over to the Philistines. Since his support among the people is virtually non-existent, he is reduced to carrying out partisan-style attacks against the enemy instead of leading an army against them. Why should the Bible dedicate so many chapters and stories to a Judge who had absolutely no supporting cast? Why is HE a candidate for Messiah?

Despite all the above questions and doubts, it is clear that Samson isindeed someone very special. Even before his birth, an angel of G-d came to his parents and spoke of the birth of this extraordinary son, “for a Nazarite to G-d shall the boy be…and he will begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”

The answer to the riddle of Samson’s greatness lies in the supposed weakness of his not enjoying the support of his people. Even though he was betrayed by his own people, he continued to love them and fight on their behalf. His internal strength and his willingness to stand alone and fight “Chillul Hashem” (the desecration of G-d’s Name) are why he is described as “beginning to save Israel”. In the same way that Moses never turned his back on the Jewish People, despite their endless accusations against him, Samson remained firm in his faith and “Ahavat Yisrael”. At the same time, the people disparaged him as irresponsible and violent, a hot-blooded lunatic who “makes things worse” by fermenting hatred against the Jews on the part of the Philistines. Samson paid no heed to them. For this he would eventually be recognized as the great leader he was.

And while it is true that he sinned, Samson physically sacrificed himself for the Jewish People. Even in his last moments where he stood weakened, blinded, and bound – what grieved him was not his personal suffering, but rather the tremendous desecration of G-d’s Name that this was causing. When Yaakov saw all this; placing G-d’s Honor over his own, putting his people’s pain before his own – he understood that such a man is worthy of being the Messiah.

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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