Parashat Pinhas: Testing Our Sincerity
Parashat Pinhas begins with G-d informing Moshe of the reward that He would grant to Pinhas for his act of zealotry during the incident of Ba’al Pe’or, when the nations of Moab and Midyan conspired to lure Beneh Yisrael to sin. These nations sent their young women to seduce Beneh Yisrael and lure them to immorality and idolatry – two of the three cardinal sins (the third being murder). As the entire nation was spiritually unravelling, a prominent leader named Zimri publicly engaged in relations with a Midyanite woman, Kozbi. Pinhas heroically arose and killed them, which brought an end to the plague which G-d had brought upon Beneh Yisrael. In reward for this act, G-d named Pinhas a Kohen. Until this incident, Pinhas would not have become a Kohen, despite his being a grandson of Aharon, but he earned this privilege as a result of his heroism during the sin of Ba’al Pe’or.
Interestingly, however, the Gemara comments in Masechet Zebahim (101) that Pinhas did not receive his reward immediately. Rather, his status of Kohen was delayed until later, during the time of Yehoshua, when Pinhas helped resolve another national crisis that arose. As we read in the Book of Yehoshua (22), the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Menashe, who resided east of the Jordan River, constructed an altar on the riverbank. The other tribes, who lived in the mainland of Eretz Yisrael, west of the Jordan, assumed that this altar was constructed for idolatry, as an act of rebellion against G-d, and they prepared to wage war against these three tribes. Before attacking, however, they sent Pinhas to speak to Reuben, Gad and Menashe and find some resolution. These tribes explained to Pinhas that their intent in building the altar was not for idolatry, but rather as a sign and reminder of their identification as part of the Nation of Israel. Pinhas returned to the other tribes and conveyed to them the explanation, thereby avoiding a deadly conflict. At this point, the Gemara comments, Pinhas received the status of Kohen in reward for his heroism during the sin of Ba’al Pe’or.
Why was Pinhas’ reward delayed? Why wasn’t he named a Kohen immediately?
Often, people act the right way and do the right things not because of their devotion to God and to His commands, but because of their natural tendencies. For example, many people are naturally kind and sensitive, and others are naturally drawn to the intellectually stimulating experience of Torah. For this reason, actions do not always reflect a genuine, sincere commitment to G-d. The way we test our sincerity is by determining whether we are prepared to act the opposite way to fulfill the divine will. Thus, for example, Abraham Abinu excelled in the area of Hesed – loving kindness to all people – and so He was tested by the command of the Akeda, when he showed he was willing to tie his beloved son on an altar and cut his throat in fulfillment of G-d’s will. If a person is prepared to act in a manner that directly opposes his natural tendency, in order to fulfill G-d’s will, then he has proven his sincerity.
I once received a phone call before Yom Kippur from a woman who told me that her husband, an eighty-year-old man, was instructed by his doctor to eat on Yom Kippur.
“Ok,” I replied, “if the doctor said so, then this is what he should do.”
The woman explained to me that her husband outright refused to eat. He had fasted on Yom Kippur every single year since his Bar Misva, and was not prepared to eat on Yom Kippur that year. I tried gently explaining to the woman that the same G-d who commands healthy people to fast on Yom Kippur commands ill patients to eat on Yom Kippur. For the last sixty-seven years, G-d wanted her husband to fast on Yom Kippur, but that year He wanted him to eat.
If a person is not willing to eat on Yom Kippur when Halacha requires him to do so, then his sincerity must be questioned. Was he fasting on Yom Kippur all these years in order to fulfill Hashem’s will, or because this is what he grew up with, or because he received some personal satisfaction from the experience? If he was truly sincere in his desire to fulfill G-d’s will, then why would he refuse to eat when this is what G-d wants him to do?
This is the question that had to be answered before Pinhas could receive his reward for killing Zimri and Kozbi. Did he truly act out of religious passion, and a genuine desire to defend G-d’s honor and end the plague? Or, was he just in a bad mood that day, or was he naturally drawn to violent behavior?
Pinhas’ sincerity in committing this act was tested at the time he was sent to speak to Reuven, Gad and Menashe. Here he was given the precise opposite mission. Rather than kill two sinners, his job was to bring peace between conflicting factions. Whereas in Ba’al Pe’or the extraordinary situation called for an extraordinary measure of violence, Pinhas was now called upon to work as a diplomat and resolve a conflict. He was sent specifically to prevent a situation of battle against sinners – the very kind of battle he waged at Ba’al Pe’or. He dutifully executed his mission, thereby confirming his sincerity and establishing that he was worthy of the lofty stature of Kohen.