This week we learn of the great reward the Ribbono shel Olam bestowed upon Pinchas after he slew Zimri, a prince of Shevet Shimon.
Shortly before that key moment in our history, Zimri had brazenly challenged Moshe Rabbeinu. During that confrontation, Moshe Rabbeinu and the others who were present burst out weeping.
Pinchas observed what had occurred and was reminded of the halachah. He then approached Moshe Rabbeinu and said respectfully to him, “I learned from you, [in such a case] kana’im pogin bo, zealots have a right to kill him.”
“Let the one who reads the letter be the agent to carry it out,” Moshe told him. Pinchas immediately took a spear in his hand and killed both Zimri and Kozbi.
There is a fascinating explanation attributed to the Apta Rav, zy”a, that sheds light on this exchange. The Rebbe teaches that the word “pogin,” which is translated as “killing,” can also be related to the word “pegiah,” which Chazal tell us means tefillah.
Moshe Rabbeinu had understood the halachah of kana’im pogin bo to mean davening on behalf of the sinner, not killing him. He therefore burst into tears, beseeching Hakadosh Baruch Hu that Zimri should do teshuvah.
Pinchas understood the halachah differently. He interpreted the word pogin in the literal sense, meaning that Zimri should be killed. Moshe Rabbeinu therefore told him, “Let the one who reads the letter” — i.e., since you understand the halachah in this way — “be the agent to carry it out” — for I understand it differently.
While Pinchas differed with Moshe Rabbeinu about how to deal with Zimri, moments after he miraculously executed Zimri, he too turned to tefillah, arguing on behalf of his brothers and begging the Ribbono shel Olam to stop the plague that was threatening to kill tens of thousands of Bnei Yisrael.
When Hashem spoke of the reward that Pinchas would receive, He described his paternal lineage: “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen.” The Meshech Chochmah teaches us that both of Pinchas’s actions are referred to in this passuk.
When Aharon Hakohen was niftar and the clouds of glory departed, Bnei Yisrael turned back and began to retrace their route to Egypt. Members of Shevet Levi pursued their brethren, and a battle broke out. Jews on both sides were killed, until the Leviim were able to force their brethren to turn back toward Eretz Yisrael.
The Leviim, who were at the time under the leadership of Elazar Hakohen, acted solely to defend the honor of Hashem, as did Pinchas, who emulated his father’s ways.
When Bnei Yisrael sinned by making the golden calf, Aharon Hakohen urged them to wait until the next day, preferring that he be blamed for this terrible sin and that Klal Yisrael be spared. When Pinchas beseeched Hashem on behalf of the rest of Klal Yisrael, it was a singular act of ahavas Yisrael by which he emulated his grandfather, Aharon Hakohen.
The Torah tells us that the reward Hashem gave him was “My covenant of peace.” Rashi explains: “Like a person who extends kindness and graciousness to one who does him a favor, so here Hakadosh Baruch Hu declared to him His feelings of friendship.”
The passuk states that the reason for this covenant of peace and bris of eternal kehunah was “tachas asher kinei l’Elokav vayechaper al Bnei Yisrael — because he took vengeance for his G-d and atoned for Bnei Yisrael.”
The Ruzhiner Rebbe, zy”a, says that the word tachas can mean both “because” and “below.” He explains the passuk homiletically: Tachas — below, i.e., in this world — it seemed asher kinei, that he took vengeance. But l’Elokav — the Ribbono shel Olam knew that vayechaper al Bnei Yisrael — Pinchas’s only intention was to atone for Bnei Yisrael. His only motivation was a deep love for Bnei Yisrael, and in return for this love he merited a “covenant of peace” and “feelings of friendship,” so to speak, from Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
It is striking that while the majority of the meforshim portray Zimri as a symbol of one of the greatest spiritual dangers imaginable, one who endangers the very existence of our people, a number of other meforshim portray his reasoning (though not his actions) in a far more positive light. In his sefer Emunas Itechu, Harav Moshe Wolfson, shlita, points out that the Kamarna Rebbe, zy”a, Harav Yonasan Eibeschutz, zy”a, the Izhbitzer Rebbe, zy”a, and the Satmar Rav, zy”a, are among those who seek to defend Zimri.
According to these meforshim, Zimri did indeed convert Kozbi before seeking to marry her. But her conversion was invalid, either because it was not done for the right reasons or because converts were not being accepted at that time.
Harav Yonasan Eibeschutz states that Zimri sensed that a leader of Bnei Yisrael would marry a convert, and from that union would emerge malchus Beis David. He assumed it would be him, although it was actually Boaz, who would marry Rus generations later.
Zimri may have meant well, but he was tragically mistaken. Only an act of zealotry on the part of Pinchas, an act that was completely l’shem Shamayim, was able to stop the plague and save the nation.
May the Ribbono shel Olam grant each of us the wisdom to do what is right, and may our actions be truly l’shem Shamayim.