Parashat Balak: Pinhas' Plea
The final verses of Parashat Balak tell of the tragic incident of Ba’al Pe’or, when Beneh Yisrael were lured to sin by the women of Moab. At the advice of the gentile prophet Bilam, the people of Moab set up a market with stores selling appealing merchandise, and when Beneh Yisrael went to view the products, they were met by attractive Moabite girls who offered them wine. With their minds affected by wine, the men succumbed to temptation, and the girls of Moav instructed them to worship their idols. And thus Beneh Yisrael sunk to the depths of sin, committing two of the gravest violations – idolatry and immorality.
In response, G-d struck the nation with a devastating plague that killed 24,000 people. The plague came to an end when Pinhas, a grandson of Aharon Ha’kohen, killed two violators – Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi, a woman from Midyan. The Talmud relates that Pinhas pierced the two with his dagger as they engaged in relations, and then lifted their bodies and pleaded to G-d, “Because of these thousands of Jews should die?!” At that point, the plague ended.
A number of difficult questions arise from this story. First, why did Pinhas kill only Zimri and Kozbi? Tens of thousands of men from Beneh Yisrael were involved in sin with Moabite women. Why did Pinhas single out Zimri? Moreover, how can we understand Pinhas’ plea to Hashem – “Because of these thousands of Jews should die?!”? Thousands of Jews died not because of Zimri and Kozbi, but because of their own sins. What did Pinhas mean?
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) explained that there are two types of sins that people commit: sins resulting from temptation, and sins motivated by ideology. Sometimes people want to do the right thing but fail to muster the strength to overcome temptation; they have no intention of betraying G-d, but they do not exercise the discipline and restraint needed to obey His laws. Although these acts are certainly considered sins that we must try our hardest to avoid, they are less grievous than sins committed with the purpose of betraying G-d and violating the Torah. When a person violates the Torah “Le’hachis” – out of a desire and conviction to transgress, he has committed a far more severe offense than one who succumbs to temptation and pressure.
The Talmud tells that Zimri first brought Kozbi to Moshe Rabbenu and asked whether he is allowed to engage in relations with her. Of course, Moshe replied that this is forbidden, whereupon Zimri mockingly said, “So why were you allowed to marry Tzipora?” Moshe’s wife was from Midyan, and thus Zimri accused Moshe of hypocrisy, marrying a Midyanite woman while forbidding others from doing the same thing. He then went ahead and engaged in relations with Kozbi.
Thus, there was a basic difference between the sin of Kozbi and that of the other men. The others were lured and tempted to sin, whereas Kozbi’s intent was to wage an ideological battle against the Torah. He committed his sin for the sake of opposing Moshe, not because of temptation.
Pinhas therefore killed specifically Kozbi, who had initiated an ideological campaign. He then turned to Hashem and pleaded that the rest of the nation be spared, insisting that the others be judged more favorably than Kozbi, as they sinned out of temptation, whereas he sinned to rebel. This was Pinhas’ plea, and G-d accepted his prayer and stopped the plague.
Pinhas’ reward, the Torah tells us, was a “Berit,” or “covenant” (“Beriti Shalom” – 25:12). The Ben Ish Hai notes that the first three letters of this word spell “Bari,” which is the name of the heavenly angel that advocates on behalf of the Jewish people. The final letter, “Tav,” has the numerical value of 400, which is also the numerical value of “Ra Ayin” (“evil eye”), the name of the spiritual force which one activates by seeing forbidden sights. The sin of immorality begins with the eyes, and thus Beneh Yisrael put themselves under this harmful spirit when they set their eyes upon the women of Moab. Pinhas was given this reward because he came to the nation’s defense, pleading their case before the Almighty. His heartfelt prayers, inspired by his love and care for the nation, had the effect of eliminating the harmful forces which were unleashed against them, thereby saving Beneh Yisrael and earning immense reward for himself and his progeny.