Before telling of the ten plagues that befell Egypt, the Torah in Parashat Vaeira briefly digresses to present the genealogy of the first three tribes of Israel – Reuven, Shimon and Levi, providing some details about the family of Moshe and Aharon. We learn that Aharon had four sons, the third of whom, Elazar, married “one of the daughters of Putiel” (6:25). This marriage produced Pinchas, who became famous later in the Torah (Bamidbar 25) for killing two public violators and thereby ending the plague which God had unleased because of the sin of Ba’al Pe’or.
Rashi, based on the Gemara (Sota 43a), comments that the name of Elazar’s father-in-law – “Putiel” – actually alludes to two prominent ancestors of Elazar’s wife: Yosef, and Yitro. Yosef is given this name, the Gemara explains, because “pitpeit be-yitzro” – he disregarded his evil inclination. This refers to his resisting the advances made by his master’s wife when he was a slave in Egypt, when he overcame temptation and refused to commit the adulterous act which she desired. As for Yitro, the Gemara states that he was given the name “Putiel” because “piteim agalim la-avoda zara” – “he fattened young calves for idolatry.” Yitro was once a pagan priest, who invested a great deal in the performance of pagan rites, but he later arrived at the truth of monotheism.
What might be the connection between these two righteous figures, and why does the Gemara make a point of noting that they were ancestors of Pinchas?
Rav Menachem Bentzion Sacks, in his Menachem Tziyon, explains that the stories of Yosef’s resisting temptation, and of Yitro’s theological evolution, represent the two primary kinds of spiritual challenges that we face. Yosef’s ordeal was the classic struggle against our physical negative instincts, the need to restrain our bodily impulses in humble submission to God. Yitro’s journey, by contrast, represents the courage to champion unpopular ideas. Rashi (Shemot 2:16-17) cites from the Midrash that Yitro suffered terribly as a result of his rejection of paganism, and found himself ostracized by his townspeople, to the point where his daughters were denied rights to the town’s water for their herds. Yitro renounced his pagan beliefs knowing that he would pay an enormous personal price. Whereas Yosef triumphed over his physical impulses, Yitro triumphed over the pressure to embrace popular beliefs and ideas.
Pinchas’ act of zealotry, Rav Zaks explains, involved standing up for both these struggles which Torah life requires us to wage. The sin of Ba’al Pe’or consisted of both unrestrained sexual relations with the women of Moav, and the worship of the Moavites’ god. Pinchas arose to reaffirm the nation’s fealty to the heroic struggles of his two illustrious ancestors, Yosef and Pinchas. He set out to assert the importance of appropriate boundaries and restraint in the pursuit of physical pleasure, and of having the strength, conviction and resolve to oppose false beliefs. Pinchas stood up for the dual battle that we must constantly wage as Torah Jews – the battle to resist our inner sinful impulses, and the battle to resist foreign beliefs and values.