Parashat Pinhas begins with G-d’s announcement of the reward He granted to Pinhas, Aharon’s grandson, for his heroic act of zealotry. As the Torah relates in the final verses of the previous Parasha, Parashat Balak, Pinhas brought a halt to the devastating plague that ravaged the nation and killed 24,000 people as a result of their immorality and worship of the Ba’al Pe’or idol. He ended the plague by killing two people – a member of Beneh Yisrael and a Midyanite woman – who committed a public act of immorality in front of the entire nation.
A number of commentators raised the question of why Pinhas’ reward was “delayed” until the beginning of our Parasha. God’s announcement of Pinhas’ reward begins a new paragraph and a new Parasha, indicating that it was not immediate, that it was not automatic that Pinhas would be rewarded for his heroic act.
The explanation given is that not all acts of zealotry are necessarily valuable, or even legitimate. People act in a zealous, extreme manner for all kinds of reasons, such as immaturity, impulsivity, the thrill of controversy, self-promotion, or advancing some sort of personal agenda. And when acts of zealotry are driven by such motives, they are illegitimate and condemnable. G-d paused, so-to-speak, before announcing Pinhas’ reward in order to dispel the possible misconception that such acts are inherently admirable and automatically bring reward. The pause points to the hesitation and ambivalence with which we must approach such acts, and the extremely delicate nature of zealous reaction to improper behavior. The validity of zealotry must be carefully weighed and considered on the basis of the person’s motives and the circumstances surrounding the act in question. Was the individual sincerely driven by a desire to help the Jewish people, or was this just a spontaneous, immature outburst? Did he carefully consider alternatives, and take into account the consequences of his action, or did he act on raw, mindless impulse?
Pinhas’ reward was not immediate because these questions needed to be asked before the announcement was made. In the end, of course, G-d emphatically affirmed that Pinhas acted purely for the sake of Hashem and the Jewish people. But the hesitation teaches us to exercise extreme caution before resorting to drastic acts in the name of G-d.