As Moshe Rabbeinu and a weeping nation looked on, Zimri the son of Salu committed an unthinkable and incomprehensible act. Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon Hakohen, approached his great-uncle Moshe Rabbeinu and respectfully reminded him of a halachah that he had learned from him.
“Let the one who reads the letter be the messenger,” Moshe Rabbeinu replied.
With that, Pinchas performed a deed that would earn him unfathomable reward: Hashem gave him His “covenant of peace,” for he “turned back My wrath from Bnei Yisrael.
While Pinchas’ deed certainly found favor in the heavenly spheres, it aroused great controversy among Bnei Yisrael, and the initial response among some was to humiliate Pinchas.
“Did you see this son of Puti,” they said mockingly. “His mother’s father fattened calves for avodah zarah yet he killed a nasi of a shevet in Yisrael!” They were referring to Yisro, who was also known as Putiel (“fattener”).
In response, the Ribbono shel Olam detailed his paternal lineage: “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the Kohen.”
The infuriated supporters of Zimri taunted him with his descent on his mother’s side from Yisro the ger, arguing that Pinchas had abandoned the golden path of his paternal ancestor Aharon Hakohen. Aharon was the ultimate pursuer of peace, the ohev es habriyos who was thus mekarev them to Torah. Even when he encountered someone who had just recently committed a sin, Aharon sought to bring him to teshuvah by reaching out to him with kind words and boundless love.
Now Pinchas had seemingly done something diametrically different — in an act of zealotry, he had killed Zimri. That influential leader’s many supporters were infuriated.
The fact is that Pinchas did not veer from the derech of his illustrious grandfather. While Aharon Hakohen reached out to bring sinners to teshuvah, that was only when he met them after they had already performed an aveirah. Pinchas had encountered a different set of circumstances — the unspeakable crime was occurring before his eyes, and this called for immediate drastic action.
What is particularly noteworthy is Pinchas’s reaction — or lack of it — to being humiliated. While by his heroic action he atoned for the whole nation, yet instead of gratitude he was the object of scorn and disparagement; but not only did he not respond in kind, but as Dovid Hamelech teaches us to do, he pleaded with Hashem on behalf of the people.
People react to wrongdoing in different ways.
Some people are totally passive. They are willing to overlook it when they are being mistreated, but they are equally silent when the honor of Hashem is desecrated.
Then there are those who rise and angrily protest in defense of the honor of Hashem, but they also are quick to lose their temper over every small thing that goes wrong.
Neither of these approaches is praiseworthy.
The right way, the one that we ought to emulate, is the one of Pinchas. While he exhibited zealotry in defending the honor of Hashem, he showed humility and restraint in the face of personal calumny. (Based on the teachings of the Chasam Sofer.)
The Rebbe Reb Zusha of Annipol once found himself on a public fast day — very possibly Shivah Asar B’Tammuz — in a guesthouse where large loaves of bread were being baked. It was still the middle of the day when the Rebbe continued on his way. Later on, the host found that one of the large loaves was missing and concluded that the poor man who had been there earlier must have taken it. He set off in pursuit, and soon caught up with the Rebbe.
Ignorant of the greatness of the man he was accusing, he demanded that the Rebbe return the stolen loaf at once. The Rebbe tried to convince the irate host that he had not stolen anything. The host, however, was sure that this was indeed the culprit, and concluded that the Rebbe must have eaten the whole bread that afternoon.
“I will teach you not to steal, and also not to eat on a taanis!” the host stormed, and beat the Rebbe mercilessly.
Satisfied that he had taught the “thief” a “double lesson,” the host returned home.
The Rebbe Reb Zushe spoke directly to the Ribbono shel Olam. “Zushe will not daven Minchah,” he threatened, “until You forgive this Yid!”
The Rebbe completely forgave the Yid for his outrageous act, and insisted that the Ribbono shel Olam forgive him as well.
Tzaddikim related that this act of forgiveness evoked such an eis ratzon in Shamayim that half the sins of the world were forgiven at that moment!
May we all merit to emulate the double lesson of Pinchas.