Pinchas | Nature and Goodness
Summarized by Marc Weinberg
"Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Cohen, has turned back My wrath from Bnei Yisrael, in that he was zealous for My sake among them... Wherefore say, Behold, I give to him My covenant of peace; and he shall have it and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for Bnei Yisrael." (Bamidbar 25:11-13)
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that the tribes mocked Pinchas because his mother's father (Yitro) fattened calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and yet he dared to kill a prince of a tribe of Israel (during the sin of Ba'al Pe'or). Therefore, the verse comes and connects his genealogy with Aharon: "Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the Cohen."
What do Chazal mean by this? At first glance, one might think that Pinchas' zealous actions were rooted in foreign sources, that his impulsiveness was something he learned from the idolatrous side of the family. Chazal are coming to tell us that his zealousness came specifically from Aharon, his other grandfather, the person who loved peace and pursued it. Pinchas cared about the welfare of the people and was willing to act on this, even to the extent of invading individual privacy, which to us nowadays is a foreign concept.
What was the culture of the worshippers of Pe'or, which Pinchas combated so zealously? Rashi explains that their manner of worship was to defecate in front of the idol. This shows us an underlying principle in the ideology of Pe'or: everything natural is beautiful; the world and man are perfect. These values appear intuitive and appealing, but it leads to the kind of immorality which the daughters of Moav demonstrated.
There is a well-known story in the Midrash Tanchuma at the beginning of Parshat Tazria. Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, "Which actions are better, those of God or those of man?" Rabbi Akiva replied, "Those of man." Again he asked, "But surely man is not able to create heavens and earth?" Rabbi Akiva replied, "Don't ask questions about things that humans have no control over, ask questions regarding things we do have control over." So he asked, "Why is man circumcised?" Rabbi Akiva replied, "I knew you had this in mind and therefore I said man's actions are better. The proof is that a grain of wheat is not edible but a loaf of bread is."
Turnus Rufus was asking why, if God wanted circumcision, did He not create man already circumcised? Clearly, his assumption is that everything in nature is perfect. Rabbi Akiva replied that nature is far from perfect. God expects man to complete the act of creation by perfecting nature. Rabbi Akiva's ideology is the antithesis of the culture of Pe'or. Nature contains ugliness and brutality as well; it is up to man to be a partner with God in perfecting the world.
Invasion of privacy seems to be immoral, but the zealous act which Pinchas performed was a way of fighting the liberal, pluralistic culture in which everything natural is good. Pinchas is coming to show us that there are absolute values which come above a person's right to privacy.
In our day and age where undiscriminating liberalism is rampant, we should remember the zealousness of our ancestor Pinchas.
(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Pinchas 5755 .)