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.