Former Shaliach in Washington
The beginning of our Parasha – Pinchas, and the end of the last Parasha – Balak, although separated into two Parashot, continue the same story – the Story of Am Israel going towards the women of Moaav and Midyan and following their god, Ba’al Peor. In Parashat Balak we learn what had happened, and in Parashat Pinchas we learn what the outcome is. Although the description in the Parasha is brief, there are some great lessons to be learned.
Following what Am Israel did, Hashem gives the command to kill anyone who follows Ba’al Peor. Rashi then tells us that people from the Tribe of Shimon went to their leader – Zimri who then goes to Moshe with the Midianite women. Rashi explains that Zimri asks Moshe whether women of Midyan are permitted or not? This puts Moshe in a no win situation as Moshe’s wife is from Midyan. Rashi tells us that Moshe didn’t remember the Halacha in such case, and as Pinchas sees what is happening, he remembers what Moshe taught him and says the Halacha in such a case is that zealous people should strike the sinners, and he acts upon it.
At the Beginning of our Parsha, Pinchas is praised for his zealous act, although it’s known that even though this is the Halacha we don’t teach it or act upon it. In that case, why is his deed considered to be so great? Why is he praised? asks the GRI”L Chasman.
The answer comes in the next Pasuk: “Because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the people of Israel”. This Halacha is not taught because it is not for just anyone to act upon. Only someone with a pure heart and without any ulterior motives can do it. It is feared that people would take the law into their own hands when coming to keep this Halacha. But in Pinchas’s heart there was only zealousness for Hashem and atonement for Am Israel.
In complete contradiction to Pinchas’s praises, Hashem tells us what to do with Midyan: “Harass the Mid’ianites, and smite them”. Harass is in the present tense. Rashi says that this shows that this is an ongoing command, and not just for that time. Even more so, we know that even the tenth generation of Midyan is not allowed to join Am Israel. Why is their sin so terrible? And by comparison, the Egyptians, who also tried to kill us, are permitted to join Am Israel after three generations. The answer lies in the outcome of what they tried to achieve. The Egyptians tried to kill us, but only in this world. Midyan tried to get us to sin, and by that to annihilate us from the world to come.
This last idea is very simple to grasp through that example, but we don’t accept such a notion on the greater scale. Let’s take for example a murderer who is parading freely on the streets. We would be appalled and would never let such a thing happen. On the other hand, someone who writes articles and lectures against Judaism and Halacha and tries to get people to convert or sin, we would be likely to say “it’s his freedom of speech, he is allowed to present his ideas”.
These two ideas go hand in hand. We have to know the dangers coming from people preaching for heresy or trying to steer us off the path. Even so, this does not give us the permission to act upon it in any way we choose. We have to watch what we hear and expose ourselves to, but even more so, not to take the law into our own hands.