Parashat Pinhas: What Did Pinhas See?
Parashat Pinhas begins with G-d’s announcement of the reward that He would be giving Pinhas for his heroic act of killing two public sinners. As we read in the final verses of Parashat Balak, the nations of Moab and Midyan schemed to lure Beneh Yisrael to sins of immorality and idolatry by sending their women to seduce them. G-d punished Beneh Yisrael by bringing a deadly plague that killed 24,000 people. The plague ended only when Pinhas arose and killed Zimri – the leader of the tribe of Shimon – and Kozbi – a princess of Midyan – as they committed a public sinful act. G-d then informed Moshe that if not for Pinhas’ zealotry, He would have annihilated all of Beneh Yisrael, and He was therefore granting Pinhas great reward.
Rashi explains that this announcement was needed because the people harshly condemned Pinhas for slaying a prominent member of the nation. They looked down upon him for committing such an act of zealotry. G-d therefore affirmed that Pinhas acted correctly under these extraordinary circumstances, and would be receiving reward.
Several explanations have been given for why the people initially condemned Pinhas for what he did. One approach stems from the comment of Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel (25:15) that Kozbi – the woman killed by Pinhas – was the daughter of Balak, king of Moab, who instigated this scheme. Our Sages teach us that although Balak was a bitter enemy of Beneh Yisrael, they were not to wage war against him because of his progeny – his great-granddaughter was none other than Rut, the righteous convert who joined Beneh Yisrael. Rut was the great-grandmother of King David, and was thus the matriarch of the Davidic royal dynasty, and the ancestor of Mashiah. Therefore, it was not a simple matter to kill Kozbi, a daughter of Balak. What if she was the daughter from whom Rut would descend? Killing her would mean preventing Rut from coming into the world – and thus preventing King David and Mashiah from being born! Indeed, many years earlier, back in Egypt, before Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a slave, "Va’yar Ki En Ish" (Shemot 2:12) – Moshe looked around and saw "that there was no man," which Rashi explains to mean that Moshe saw that no righteous people would descend from this evil taskmaster. By the same token, before killing Kozbi, it was necessary to ensure that she was not destined to be the ancestor of Mashiah.
This is why the Torah says that as Zimri and Kozbi committed their act, "Va’yar Pinhas" (25:7) – "Pinhas saw." Pinhas looked and saw that no righteous people could possibly descend from Kozbi. The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (82a) teaches that if a man, Heaven forbid, has a relationship with a non-Jewish woman, then no Torah scholars will descend from him, and if he is a Kohen, he will have no descendants worthy of serving in the Bet Ha’mikdash. This is what Pinhas "saw" – he understood that Kozbi was not destined to be the ancestor of Mashiah, because righteous people could not be produced from a person guilty of this kind of act.
Beneh Yisrael, however, condemned Pinhas, accusing him of essentially "killing" Mashiah. They charged that Pinhas acted recklessly, thereby destroying the nation’s future. G-d therefore affirmed that Pinhas acted correctly, because Mashiah was not destined to descend from Kozbi. Moreover, G-d announced that Pinhas would be rewarded with "Beriti Shalom" – "My covenant of peace" (25:12). Targum Yonatan explains that it was here that G-d declared that Pinhas – who was the prophet Eliyahu – would live forever. As we know, Eliyahu was taken to the heavens alive, and will return to us to herald the imminent arrival of Mashiah. In response to the people’s accusations, G-d declared that Pinhas will in the future be the one to announce the nation’s redemption, that Mashiah would be coming to redeem Am Yisrael. Whereas the people charged that Pinhas in effect killed Mashiah – G-d proclaimed that to the contrary, Pinhas himself will arrive to inform the Jewish Nation that the time has come for Mashiah to come and bring us from exile.