Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

Pinchas vs. Zimri: Authority vs. Anarchy

It is often instructive to study the differences between the man made parsing of the Torah by chapter, and the divisions within the narrative that are indicated by the parsha system that has been handed down to us from Sinai. One such discrepancy may give us insight into the overlapping story of Parshas Pinchas and Parshas Balak. Pinchas, like almost every weekly reading is set apart form Parshas Balak by the standard yet significant spacing that seemingly indicates the start of a new episode. However the beginning of our parsha sits ten pesukim into the twenty-fifth chapter of Bamidbar. That indicates that from some vantage point it would make sense to begin Pinchas with the final episode of Balak or squeeze the beginning of Pinchas into the end of Balak. Indeed, Parshas Pinchas opens with Pinchas receiving his reward for the boldness that he showed during the closing act of Parshas Balak, and thus the two parshiyos flow seamlessly into one story. What are we then to learn from Hashem’s instruction to split the story into virtually two separate chapters?

It seems to me that ending the parsha abruptly, with the death of Zimri in the hands of Pinchas, shape a parsha that has us witness the rapid decline of the nobility of that community. In just ten verses, we sank from Hashem’s embrace, protecting us even from Bilaam’s ugly curses, all the way to widespread decadence, the service of the most distasteful pagan entity, and an unprecedented challenge to Moshe Rabbeinu. Seeing this event in the context of Pinchas’s soaring courage, which would happen if the stories were combined, should not dilute this parsha and its attendant lessons. What does the Torah wish us to extract from this parsha and the high-speed slide that we had taken?

This sad parsha culminates with Zimri’s ever so feeble and equally brazen attempt to protect his own act of decadence and that of his kinsmen, by publicly questioning the validity of Moshe’s longstanding marriage. Zimri meets his end through the fiery zealousness of Pinchas. Interestingly, though Pinchas was halachicaly (kanoin pogin bo) responding to Zimri’s act of decadence, Zimri’s death is related to the idolatrous service of Ba’al Peor, even though it seems to be mildly connected at best. This connection cannot be ignored as the plague which was brought upon us in response to the service of Ba'al Peor concluded when Pinchas killed Zimri. The Torah further underscores the connection early on in this week parsha (25:16-19). “Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Harass the Midianites and beat them; for they harassed you through their scheme as they schemed against you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi… who was slain on the day of the plague, in the matter of Peor”. What is the connection between Zimri’s public decadence and impudence and the pagan practice of Peor?

Now even after some consideration the service of Ba'al Peor is literally incredible. How can relieving one self ever be accepted as a meaningful and spiritual practice? I believe that many years ago, I heard Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky zt”l explain that the service of Peor was really a religion that advocated hefkeirus, a “do your own thing” approach to life. It was a religion that believed in releasing and exercising all desires rather than challenging then and channeling them. If anything, Peor was really an anti-god movement advocating that anything goes, shaping a culture that carries absolutely no respect for any authority or any kind of loyalty. The concept of authority and the respect that it should enjoy, along with family commitments that obviously preclude the decadence of Moab are undoubtedly restrictive and demand discipline long before one may come to know their wisdom and fruit. Thus Peor paganism allowed for the sundering of family bonds just as it engineered the attempted public scrutiny of Moshe’s family and the attempted overthrow of Moshe’s leadership.

The Torah wishes us to stop at the end of Parshas Balak and to view how quickly we can unravel when everyone is empowered and the concept of authority is open to question. This indeed is a parsha of its own.

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