Pinchas - Rise to the Occasion

How do we react when that challenging moment arrives? The ones that we were never prepared for? There is one section of Torah that draws together a series of episodes, all of which centre on this very theme. That section is the weekly reading of Parshas Pinchas.[1]

Its opening lines seem to cut a story midway. In last week’s Torah-reading we learned of the mass orchestrated seduction, by Midianite women, of Israelite men to idolatry[2] reaching a tragic apex when no less than a tribal leader engaged in public intimate relations with a Midianite princess in front of the Tabernacle itself.[3] It was a challenge to everything Moshe had ever taught. Throughout the Book of Bamidbar, there has been an emerging tension between the central authority of Moshe and the delegated authority to the tribes and national elders.[4] Now one of those very tribal elders decided to publicly challenge Moshe’s teachings from God Himself.[5]

As Moshe and the people stood paralyzed,[6] one man took action.[7] Pinchas steps forward, thrusting his spear into the two of them, executing them, and in an instant ending the challenge.[8] But was it the correct act?

That is where this week’s reading begins.

The Talmud provides the background. Pinchas’ act was extremely controversial, being seen as an act of unjustified religious fanaticism:

The tribes began to demean Pinehas: Did you see this son of Puti,[9] As [Yisro] the father of his mother, fattened [pittem] calves for idol worship, so too he killed the prince of a tribe of Israel!

 (Sanhedrin 82b)

Even the angels disapproved!

The ministering angels sought to push him away, but God said, ‘leave him!’… (ibid.)

It is in the face of the moral ambiguity of Pinchas’ action that this week’s Sidra opens with Hashem delivering His decisive verdict:

Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest removed My anger against the children of Israel… therefore… I will give him my covenant of peace! (Bamidbar 25:11-12)

So Pinchas is someone who did the right thing at a moment of crises. But the very fact that there is so much ambiguity surrounding it, raises questions. If it was right why did even the angels think it was wrong? What was it that actually made it right? And how are we to learn from t how we can make those right choices in unclear moments?

The theme of ‘rising to the occasion’ in the positive or negative turns out to define the entire Parsha. 

We find a national census. Each time the Israelites are about to enter Israel a census must be taken in order to allocate the land.[10] Yet this census differs from the first in a few ways. Perhaps the most striking is that this time the Torah punctuates its lists with descriptions of key moments whereby various individuals rose or fell when confronted with challenges.[11]

The next episode involves the ‘rising to the occasion’ of the daughters of Tzelafchad who ask for the possibility of daughters inheriting their fathers and getting a portion in the land.[12] Moshe asks God and God approves.[13]

This is followed by the instruction to prepare Joshua for his moment. He is to be given ‘from the glory’ of Moshe and prepared to assume leadership of the nation.[14]

Finally comes a list of Shabbat and festival ‘Musaf’ or ‘extra’ offerings.[15] At first glance this seems out of place. Almost all the offerings were presented at the start of the book of Vayikra. Why were these held back? And why are they being give now? Yet with the theme we have been exploring, the answer is clear: these are the greatest examples of adjusting behavior to rise to occasions. There are no more poignant occasions in the relationship with God than those festive days; and they require from us ‘additional’ offerings.

If the theme is indeed about how to rise when the moment demands it, then what is it that Torah wants to teach us as the key to being able to do so? 

Let us return for a moment to the opening discussion of the sidra. Pinchas has just killed a tribal leader. Many people are furious. Yet what is curious is that both their anger against him, and God’s defence of him, both centre on the exact same issue. Not an evaluation of the action per se, but the ancestry of Pinchas.

The tribes began to demean Pinchas: Did you see this son of Puti? As [Yisro] the father of his mother, fattened [pittem] calves for idol worship, so too he killed the prince of a tribe of Israel!

When the Hashem saw them cheapening him thus, He began tracing his illustrious lineage:"Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest turned My wrath away from the children of Israel" (Bamidbar 25:11) (Sanhedrin 82b, Sifrei 131:3)

Why should ancestry make any difference at all? 

One possibility is that this was not a case of a morally unambiguous act at all. 

Had it been brought before the court they would never have ruled to do it.

Had Zimri interrupted his act and Pinchas had killed him, [Pinchas] would have been liable for murder!

Had Zimri turned around and killed Pinchas, [Zimri] would not have been liable, as Pinchas would have been considered [Zimri’s] ‘pursuer’[16] (Sanhedrin 82a)

That strikes our moral sensibilities as incoherent. Surely if it is right then the court should rule it in public it to everyone, and if it wrong then it should not be the law?

But it turns out that there are situations where right and wrong are not determined by the act, but by the inner feelings from which the act stems. 

Consider parents punishing a child. If a parent is coming from a sense of love for the child and feels that the child must learn consequences and learn to desist from certain behaviours, then they may well be able to deliver those consequences effectively. But if at that moment the parent is angry and loses their self-control, then the very same punitive act could be wrong. When someone is angry, even if they are right, they are wrong. 

Pinchas is confronted by a situation that brings about passionate feelings. It is about God, but it is also about our national identity, about personal loyalties and so much more. In short it is the nexus of complex feelings and identity – precisely the point where passionate love, of God and creation, can turn to jealous, controlling religious fanaticism.  Indeed, the positive word that Hashem uses to describe Pinchas’s action – ‘kano es kinasi’, ‘he cared for what I care for’[17] – is almost identical to the word for a fanatic ‘kana’i’.[18] The root of the word expresses this dichotomy. On the one hand it is rooted in the word ‘ken’ – a nest – connoting nurturing loving care; on the other hand, it is almost identical to the word ‘kinah’ - possessive jealousy. The implication is something we are so painfully aware of in everyday geopolitics and also, closer to home, in the dynamics of human relationships. Positive nurturing and caring are often only a knife edge away from damaging jealousies, possessiveness and control that destroys relationships and drives all forms of fanaticism. 

In other words, the difference between what is right and wrong is not the action but the subtle inner drives and impulses. That would explain why it can be ‘the law, but we do not teach it’.

In the words of the Zohar: ‘there cannot be kana’us without love.’[19] To love is to be willing to connect with the other on their terms. That means we are willing to open ourselves up to discover them and to discover the depth of our relationship with them, and them with us. To be truly open to relationship we need to love, and to love we need to let go, to stop trying to control, and to allow others into our hearts, minds, and being. We need to be able to be vulnerable. 

The fanatic can never do that. They confuse their relationship with getting what they want from others. They may be very nice, and caring, but at root they are trying to own the other person and control them. 

When applied further, at a national or religious level, the relationship with Hashem and with His creation requires a loss of control, and an openness to hear in each situation the voice of God; not a projection of our own voice. To the fanatic, God’s voice is always telling them what they already know. That is because the fanatic never listens to God, but controls God. They can be sure that they are being religious when in fact they are simply projecting themselves onto God, telling God what God should do and think. 

When crisis strikes, the ability to rise to the occasion is not something that just happens. It requires years, decades or even centuries of deep self-development. The families we come from will make a difference; our grandparents make a difference. 

That is why the critics of Pinchas’ action draw upon his past. They see in him an expression of a religious impulse that they trace back through his own family. But God responds by affirming that the actions of Pinchas expressed three generations of a family dedicated to peace and love

It is this that connects the other themes of the Sidra, such as the right of Joshua to national leadership. It was earned not through a spectacular moment, but through the day to day labour of love of caring for the bet midrash; the unsung work that builds the inner greatness.[20]

It is this that drove the daughters of Tzelafchad to emphasize that their father had not died from the numerous rebellions.[21]Moshe should not see this as some kind of power-hungry rebellious spirit. They had grown up in a home that was loyal and caring and that is they were coming forward with no political agenda, nor national reconstructivist agenda; just a genuine love for the land and for the continuation of their lineage.

And that characterizes the way that the Musaf offerings are presented here too. In each case the Torah emphasizes:

The elevation offering of Shabbos each in its Shabbos, upon the every-day offering…(Bamidbar 28:10)[22]

Festivals, like great moments of life, break the routine. They demand a different response. But that response can only be done correctly, to the extent to which it is built upon the consistent daily hard work. 

There are no short cuts. Life will throw up its moments when we are not in control, when routines are broken, and securities thrown away. It is those moments that may come to define us. But our ability to rise to the occasion is predicated upon the years and decades of dedicated hard work to build ourselves into the people whose responses will be those of love, those of care, and those that genuinely rise to the occasion.



[1] See Frameworks, Bamidbar by R’M.Weinberg pp.259-268 which serves as a source for the theme developed herein

[2] Bamidbar 25:1-3, Sanhedrin 106a

[3] Bamidbar 25:6

[4] Bamidbar 11:4-5; 10-17; 24-25. Moshe related the rejection of the Manna to the rejection of his motherly nursing of the people. See Frameworks, Numbers pp.91-100 for an elaboration of the thematic link. See also Devorim 1:12-14 Rashi 1:14 sv vata’anu. Of course there are direct links between this delegated authority and the demand (or need) for spies to affirm a national acceptance of the land (Bamidbar 13:1-14:10; Devorim 1:22-41, see Rashi and Ramban to 1:22), and also to the rebellion of Korach (Bamidbar 16:1-35).

[5] It also involved an attack on Moshe personally, see Rashi ad loc.

[6] Bamidbar 25:6, see Tanchuma Balak 20

[7] See Rashi 25:6 sv Vehema Bochim based on Tanchuma 20, see also Sanhedrin 82a

[8] Bamidbar 25:7-9

[9] His mother was one of the daughters of Putiel (see Shemos 6:25)

[10] Hence an earlier census in Bamidbar 1:20-47 in what was supposed to be just a few days before entry into the land. 

[11] See eg. 26:9-11, 19, 33, 46 (see Rashi). Another key difference is the listing of the ancestral families of each tribe. It may well be that this is because some had forfeited their rights to certain lands, whereas others had merited more, hence the difference in name lists from Bereishis ch.46. see Rashi throughout Bamidar ch.26 for other explanations. 

[12] Bamidbar 27:3-4

[13] Ibid. 5-7

[14] Ibid. 15-23

[15] Ibid. 28:1-30:1

[16] The reference is to the law that one who is ‘pursuing’ another to kill them, then it is permitted, if necessary, to kill the pursuer. See Sanhedrin 73a.

[17] Bamidbar 25:11

[18] The Hebrew name for the anti-Rabbinic fanatically nationalistic sect, referred to throughout Josephus’ account. Usually translated into English as the ‘Zealots’

[19] Zohar, Vayikra 54b

[20] Bamidbar Raba 21:16; cf. Shemos 33:11

[21] Bamdbar 27:3, see Rashi

[22] See also 28:16,24,31, 29:11,16,19,22,25,28,34

- July 9th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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