The final verses of Parashat Balak tell of the disturbing incident of Ba’al Pe’or, where Benei Yisrael engaged in relations with the women of Moav and worshipped that nation’s deity, and the tribal leader of Shimon, Zimri, publicly cohabited with a Midyanite woman. God punished the nation by bringing a deadly plague, until Pinchas halted the plague by killing Zimri and the Midyanite woman.
Rashi (25:7), citing the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a), describes Pinchas’ reaction to the sight of Zimri’s public offense, writing, “Ra’a ma’aseh ve-nizkar halakha” – “He saw the act, and was reminded of the law.” This refers to the extraordinary provision of “kana’in pog’in bo” which applies in very rare, exceptional cases, authorizing a zealot to kill a violator (though also permitting the violator to kill the zealot in self-defense). When Pinchas saw Zimri’s public breach, he was reminded of this halakha and proceeded to act upon it.
We might ask, what exactly does the Gemara seek to add to our understanding of this incident through this comment? God later expresses His emphatic approval of Pinchas’ controversial violent act (25:10-13), clearly indicating that Pinchas’ exceptional zealotry was justified. What do Chazal add by telling us that Pinchas saw what Zimri did and then remembered the extraordinary provision authorizing a violent response?
The answer, perhaps, is that the Gemara seeks to emphasize that the validity of a zealous response was not on Pinchas’ mind before witnessing Zimri’s act. The license granted to zealots under these circumstances was something that entered Pinchas’ awareness as a result of the sight he beheld, not something which had always been on his mind. Some people live their lives as “zealots,” actively pursuing a cause, eagerly searching for something to protest and oppose. These people are not “reminded” of the law of “kana’in pog’in bo”; this law is at the forefront of their consciousness at all times, and they constantly look around for some impropriety to which they can justify fierce opposition. Pinchas was not looking for something to be zealous about. He saw an outrage and then recalled that zealotry in such a case is legitimate; he was not out searching for an opportunity to act zealously. Chazal here teach us that even in the very rare circumstances when fierce opposition is warranted, it loses all legitimacy if a person is looking for such opportunities. These situations call for strong action only if one does not look for them, and needs to be “reminded” of the license to react strongly.