"God spoke to Moses saying: Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen, turned back My wrath from among the children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his God, and he atoned for the Children of Israel." (Numbers 25:10-13)

The background to the story: Zimri, the head of the tribe of Shimon, one of the 13 most prominent Jewish citizens of the generation known as the "generation of the wise," engaged in relations with Kozbi, a Midianite princess, with the knowledge of the entire Jewish public. He may as well have committed the act in the public square.

While his deed was no doubt morally reprehensible in the extreme according to the moral standards of the time, it was not a capital offence. According to the dictates of Jewish criminal law, he could not have been tried and executed for the sin of having relations with a non-Jewish woman under the due process of law. Nevertheless, a zealot was allowed to kill him! (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 81b) Pinchas' execution of Zimri was a legally sanctioned act of zealotry. The official arm of the law could not touch Zimri, and it delivered him into the hands of the zealot to deal with.

This law of the zealot is one of the most difficult Torah concepts for the modern mind to deal with. Pinchas earned eternal priesthood and God's covenant of peace by killing Zimri in cold blood, an act that impacts on most of us modern thinking people as a horrendous expression of savage vigilantism. Let us see if we can learn to relate to it.


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We are hardly the first to question the acts of Pinchas. Rashi's first comment on the Parsha quotes a Midrash that deals with this very issue. The Midrash asks: why does the Torah begin our Parsha by introducing Pinchas to us as the son of Elazar the son of Aaron, when it had already told us his full lineage a mere three short verses ago at the very end of Parshat Balak?

The Midrash responds: the Jewish public was horrified by Pinchas' act of zealotry. Jewish public opinion took the position that it was impossible to relate to murder as an act that a Jew could commit under any circumstances. The urge to commit zealous murder was attributed to Pinchas' non Jewish genes. Pinchas' mother, Elazar's wife, was Jethro's granddaughter. The consensus of opinion held that had he descended from pure Jewish stock he could never have committed such a savage murder no matter how many Jewish lives its commission saved. The Jewish people were convinced that such blood lust must have originated in non-Jewish genes.

Concludes the Midrash: God instucted Moses to emphasize Pinchas' lineage in order to inform the Jewish public that the inspiration for this act of 'savage violence' originated in the genes of Aaron, acknowledged by tradition as the Jewish individual who most perfectly embodied the ideal traits of "lover and pursuer of peace" through the ages.

But weren't the Jews right? How can such an act be regarded as emerging from a zeal for pursuing peace?


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To be able to appreciate the peaceful origins of Pinchas' zealotry, we must familiarize ourselves with the two worlds that we human beings inhabit:


  1. The Olam Hayzira, a world of absolutes.
  2. The Olam Ha'asiya, the world of 'action', the physical world based on the principles of relativity.


Rav Dessler (Michtav Me'eliyahu, I) describes the way self–consciousness manifests itself in these two distinct realms:

A human being interfaces with reality in two ways. One way is through the medium of his physical senses. His senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell deliver sensory input about the world outside that is processed by the human brain into information about the outside world. These physical senses also supply us with a sort of self-awareness. We see our reflection in the mirror, we hear our own voice speak and so on.

But there is another way we interface with the world that is equally real to all of us. For each of us is endowed with a sense of our own spiritual uniqueness. This sense of ourselves as unique beings is entirely divorced from the inputs provided by our physical senses. We all have a powerful subjective feeling that even without all sensory inputs, we would still be aware of ourselves as unique self-conscious beings.

Information received through the senses is relative; it is a product of the way our senses relate to stimuli in the outside world. In contrast, our sense of self is absolute; it is knowledge that exists in our minds regardless of context or surroundings, totally independent of outside stimuli.

This absolute quality of our self-awareness is accompanied by an innate sense of justice and morality. Every human being, regardless of his or her particular culture, responds to perceived injustice with moral outrage. The human sense of right and wrong is independent of external teaching or stimuli. It is certainly not a product of information delivered by the external world. Almost everyone responds in the negative if he or she is asked whether the world is or has ever been a just place. Little children possess it without needing to be taught. It must also be classified as absolute.


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These two types of perception of the world, programmed into all human beings, represent the two worlds that we all inhabit.

A person has a sense of the outside world brought to him by his physical senses because he inhabits the Olam Ha'asiya, and he has an absolute sense of himself and of right and wrong because he simultaneously lives in the Olam Hayzira. This is the Torah view of the nature of human consciousness.

In this view, all spiritual connections are established in the Olam Hayzira. Our ability to form a connection with God is a direct byproduct of the absolute portion of our own self-consciousness. If our self-consciousness were limited to the world of the senses and we could only receive knowledge and filter information through the medium of the physical world, we would be unable to connect with God at all. His Presence cannot be detected by our physical senses.

These ideas are neither novel nor unique to the Torah point of view. Descartes' famous "I think therefore I am" encapsulates the same concept. Indeed, it even goes further; the very existence of the world of the senses can only be deduced from the existence of a world of absolutes, the world in which the human 'I' is to be found. If he weren't sure about his 'I', Descarte would be a skeptic concerning the existence of any sort of reality. In contrast, the philosophy of science is grounded on skepticism concerning the existence of absolutes and restricts the definition of "reality" to the world detectable by the physical senses.


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What is unique concerning the Torah view regarding this issue is the belief that this simultaneous existence in two different worlds provides the necessary background to the practice of free will. While all humans are self-conscious in both worlds, they must define themselves in terms of one or the other in almost every decision they face.

Thus a person who sees himself in terms of absolutes looks at his body and the world it inhabits as being the outer clothing of his inner self. He knows that his inner self takes no pleasure in a juicy steak, or in the tingle of nerve endings associated with sexual gratification. He looks at physical sensation as belonging to the world of his suit, the Olam Ha'asiya. He places his focus on investing in his 'I', building a distinct character through his actions that can be expressed in the world of absolutes.

On the other hand the person who identifies himself with his image in the mirror projected through his senses is skeptical in the extreme about his sense of the absolute and all the phenomena that are associated with it. He doubts the existence of absolute morality and is unsure of the existence of the Creator. His focus tends to remain in the area of his certainty, the world of the senses. He places his focus on the types of experience that stimulate his nerve endings.

The Torah teaches that the choice we make between these alternative self-definitions has the power to reshape our reality. Through the free will choices we make we can actualize ourselves as inhabitants of the Olam Ha'asiya or define ourselves as citizens of the Olam Hayzira. God honors our individual decisions concerning the nature of our true identities; He duly reshapes the outer reality we inhabit so that it corresponds to the self-perception of the person involved.


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It is in this context that we can appreciate the impulse to be a zealot and how it can be a product of the drive to maintain the peace. Just as every individual is forced to decide which one of the alternative forms of self consciousness more truly reflects his essential being, the Jewish people must make this choice on a national level as well. When the Jewish people en masse exercise their free will and define themselves as inhabitants of the Olam Ha'asiyah, God validates their collective decision as well by adjusting the connection between the Olam Ha'asiyah and the Olam Hayzira so that it precisely corresponds to the way the Jewish people perceive themselves.

In normal times such readjustments need have no immediate drastic repercussions, but just imagine yourself living in the desert, dependant on manna for your food, on Miriam's well for your water, and on God's cloud for shelter and protection. If the connection to the world of absolutes was broken you could not survive for a moment; none of these phenomena on which you were entirely dependant originate in the physical world, the Olam Ha'asiyah. Their presence in the physical world is clearly a consequence of the strength of the connection of the physical world to the world of absolutes. The clarity of the connection was so evident to the desert generation that the distance between the levels of reality was virtually eliminated. Phenomena that truly belong in the world of Absolutes could appear in the physical world as though they were an integral part of it.

But people in the Jewish encampment did not exist in their own individual space. All individuals interfaced with the environment of the Jewish camp, which was common to all. When a significant number of Jewish individuals made a free will decision to define themselves as existing only in the physical world, this would inevitably alter the atmosphere that prevails in the camp as a whole.


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The world was created for its inhabitants and reshapes itself to take on the form of the people it supports. When Olam Ha'asiyah people populate it, it becomes difficult or impossible for the individual who aspires to define himself in terms of absolutes to achieve the clarity this requires. Non-polluters must also breathe the air that was poisoned by the polluters. Their lungs are no less affected. Spiritual polluters have precisely the same effect. The poison they generate infects everyone. When a large number of Jews chooses to define themselves in terms of the Olam Ha'asiyah it is very difficult for the rest of us to connect ourselves to the Olam Hayzira.

Moreover, as self-definition is a free will function, and God granted man free will, it is beyond the power of God to alter the results of this self-definition process on any level. When the Olam Ha'asiyah, poisoned by the depravity of people, is forced to separate itself from the Olam Hayzira, all the phenomena that were a part of it thanks to its connection to Olam Hayzira must necessarily be withdrawn. The Jewish people, who were sustained in the desert only through their connection to the world of the absolute, would necessarily perish if this connection were severed.

This abrupt readjustment of the equilibrium between these worlds as expressed in the atmosphere of the Jewish camp is the background to the plague described at the end of Parshat Balak and referred to at the beginning of our Parsha. When everyday life in the physical world must be miraculously sustained by the power of the attachment to the world of absolutes, withdrawal from such attachment automatically expresses itself in some form of natural disaster.


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People's orientation to 'reality' is a matter of choice; God cannot keep us out of trouble when disaster strikes through upsetting the spiritual equilibrium. But while God cannot help, people can do a lot. People have free will and can do what they like. If someone comes forward and manages to provide a shock that restores people's awareness of the absolute, and induces them to back away from their redefinition of themselves as physical creatures, he could restore the atmosphere in the Jewish camp to its former state. Life could return to what is called "normal" for the desert generation.

This is precisely what Pinchas accomplished. Let us recap the events as they unfolded and see if we can follow his thinking.

The tribe of Simon pursued the Moabite women and followed them to the altars of Ba'al. The entire tribe descended to the level of the physical by declaring their preference for the tingle provided by the physical senses over the serenity of the enjoyment of the connection to the absolute. The abrupt reorientation of such a large number of people altered the prevailing atmosphere of the Jewish camp. The general perception of the world of the absolute became cloudy and confused; the connection to God weakened to a level that could no longer support the miraculous phenomena the desert generation depended on to support daily existence.

A plague broke out that caused the death of 24,000 Jews. Moses issued an edict that those involved in the idolatry should be killed as only their elimination could restore the spiritual balance required to preserve the lives of the entire camp. The tribe of Simon turned to its leader Zimri and pleaded with him to get involved and protect their lives. Zimri grabbed hold of Kozbi, the Midianite princess and confronted Moses.

He asked Moses if it was permissible for him to have relations with a Midianite woman. Upon being informed that it was forbidden he protested that Moses himself was also married to a Midianite woman, the daughter of Jethro; it was practicing a double standard to judge the members of his tribe so harshly for a sin that Moses himself was guilty of. To emphasize his challenge of Moses' ruling, Zimri took Kozbi and engaged in relations with her with the knowledge of the entire Jewish camp. Moses did not know how to handle the situation. The confusion in the camp increased steadily.

Pinchas took action. He killed Zimri while he was engaged in relations with Kozbi as demanded by the 'zealot' law; he carried the bodies impaled on his spear through the camp, threw them down in front of the Tabernacle and said to God, "For the acts of these people you killed 24,000 Jews?" (Sanhedrin,82b)


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The shock created by the combination of the violent deed and the anguished protest to God brought all the action in the camp to a complete standstill. The Jewish people caught their collective breaths; for the space of a moment everyone internalized Pinchas' extreme revulsion to Zimri's grossly physical act on the one hand, and his anguish over the loss of Jewish life on the other.

This was enough to clear the confusion. For the space of this moment Jews could see the world clearly once again. The world of the absolute came into sharp focus once again and they could all reconnect to it. The plague stopped, the situation was saved.

If we use environmental activism related to the physical world as our model we should have no difficulty at all in relating to zealotry. Physical pollution is responsible for much human suffering; we all know that it poisons our air and water and releases all sorts of carcinogens into the atmosphere. But it is impersonal, unintentional and doesn't cause any direct immediate harm; these factors make it difficult to generate the social consensus to punish polluters as the vicious criminals they really are.


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The activists who first declared war against pollution were initially regarded by society at large as fanatical zealots. They were mad! They chained themselves to nuclear reactors, prostrated themselves in the paths of bulldozers, and doggedly pursued ships transporting nuclear waste in leaky, unseaworthy vessels. Yet, through their zeal, these 'fanatics' succeeded in raising the level of collective awareness of the rest of us, the apathetic majority.

Many of us have gradually become aware of the very serious effects of pollution, and the social consensus to take action against dangerous polluters has been gathering strength in the past few decades. Any steps that society has taken to eliminate environmental hazards is directly attributable to the efforts of the few "zealots" who were willing to take action before any such consensus materialized and be regarded as 'crazy' by their fellow human beings. These few zealots literally changed the world.

If we have learned to appreciate such zealous behavior and even to empathize with it when it is directed to the preservation of the integrity of the physical world, a world that is much less sensitive to noxious poisons than the delicate world of the human spirit, we should certainly find room in our hearts to regard the acts of Pinchas in a positive light. His act is modeled after environmental activism par excellence; the Torah itself bears witness to the fact that it preserved the integrity of the Jewish people.


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The Haftora of our Torah portion concerns the prophet Elijah. According to the commentators, this is due to the fact that Elijah was also a zealot like Pinchas. Indeed there is a line of thought presented in the Midrash that Elijah and Pinchas were one and the same person (see Baba Metzia 114b). The story of Elijah's zealotry confirms our view of the subject of zealotry.

The Book of Kings (chapter 16) gives the background to the story. Ahab ascends to the throne of Israel, marries Jezebel, and acting under her influence, introduces Ba'al worship to the Jewish people. Ahab erects a Temple to this foreign deity in his capitol, Shomron, and encourages the Jewish people to abandon the faith of their ancestors in favor of the new religion.

At the very end of chapter the following enigmatic verse appears:

"In his days Chiel the Beth-elite built up Jericho. With the death of Abiram his firstborn, he laid its foundations; with the death of Segub, his youngest, he installed its doors, like the word of God that He had spoken through the hand of Joshua son of Nun." (1 Kings 16:34)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 113a) deciphers this cryptic passage for us:

Chiel was a close friend of Ahab who built a city and named it Jericho. Joshua had issued a curse upon anyone who rebuilt Jericho itself or who built another city and named if Jericho (Joshua 6); his oldest child would die when he began construction and he would finish with the death of the youngest child. All of Chiel's children duly perished during the construction of his new Jericho as per Joshua's curse.

Ahab came to pay his friend a condolence call, accompanied by Elijah. In the course of the conversation Chiel asked Elijah to explain how it was possible that Joshua's curse was carried out by God to the letter, whereas God continued to ignore the warning Moses issued in His name warning that if the Children of Israel turned to worshipping foreign gods all rainfall would cease. Ahab had turned the worship of the Ba'al into the state religion and yet the rain continued to fall aplenty.

Elijah took Chiel's words to heart. He asked God to hand him, Elijah, the key to rain. His prayer was answered. As soon as he had the key in his hand, Elijah issued the following edict to Ahab:

"Elijah the Tishbite, a resident of Gilead, said to Ahab: As YHVH, the God of Israel, lives - before whom I stand - I swear that there will not be dew or rain during these years, except by my word." (Ibid., 17:1).

Following three years of severe drought, when there was serious starvation in the land, God manipulated Elijah into returning the keys by means of a subterfuge. He told Elijah that the situation was ripe to restore the people to Divine worship and get rid of the Ba'al religion. Elijah had Ahab summon the people to Mount Carmel where he staged his confrontation with the prophets of the Ba'al, which resulted in the public declaration by the people of faith in the One God (ibid. 18:39), and the destruction of the prophets of the Ba'al. After all this was done, Elijah brought the rain.


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God is not a zealot. In the desert where survival was made possible only through the connection to the absolute, disconnection automatically resulted in plagues and death. But, in the land of Israel, which functioned according to the laws of the physical world, the rain could continue to fall even after people disconnected themselves from their connection to the absolute. After all, the rain falls all over the world as a natural phenomenon whether people worship idols or not.

God has patience. He is willing to wait a long time and allow people to return to Him on their own before He resorts to Draconian measures. He would carry out Joshua's curse because it was Joshua who issued it, but Moses always spoke in God's name, and as for Himself, He always prefers patience to zealotry.

Elijah was a zealot. He could not tolerate the lowering of God's stature alluded to by Chiel. It wasn't fitting that violating God's warning should be less severe than ignoring Joshua's curse. It was Elijah who decided to take drastic measures. He dried out the world until its physical attractions disappeared. He filled the world with suffering. When this went on for long enough, he figured that people would come to their senses and return to the world of absolutes. It was only their overindulgence in the sensations offered by the physical world that clouded their judgment until their vision of their own spirituality became obscured.


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Elijah proved to be correct in his assessment. Later, when he has to flee into the wilderness, God asks him, "Why are you here Elijah?" and he responds, "I have acted with great zeal for the Lord, God of Legions" (Ibid. 19:10)

God raised Elijah to a higher state of spiritual connection. Following new revelation, He asked him again what he was doing there. Once again Elijah responded by declaring his zeal against the violators of the covenant.

At this point God made the decision to recall Elijah and replace him with his student Elisha. He commanded Elijah to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his stead. God obviously prefers kindness and patience. He does not want a zealot running the world. So why did He reward Pinchas?

Pinchas' zeal was necessary for the survival of the Jewish people. As such, God acknowledged it with a covenant of peace. At that juncture there was no room for patience; only zealous activism could restore the peace. We are all grateful to Pinchas who ensured our survival. But Elijah's zeal was withdrawn from the world. When there is no emergency, God's prefers patience and gentle persuasion to holy zeal.

Whoever has attended a circumcision ceremony knows that the child is placed on Elijah's chair before the operation is performed. The kingdom of Israel under Ahab's rule outlawed circumcision. The violation of the covenant that Elijah referred to in his conversation with God on Mt. Sinai referred to the covenant of circumcision. The outlawing of circumcision was the immediate trigger for his zeal. In retribution for this excessive zeal, God ordered him to attend Jewish circumcision ceremonies through the ages. The message is clear. Given enough time and patience, the Jewish people always manages to get a hold of itself and recovers its connection to the absolute. If the zealots stick around long enough, they themselves will bear witness to the return.