The parsha tells us that he was a hero. He knew what to do when even Moshe Rabeinu had forgotten. He was heavily criticised by the court of public opinion. But Hashem praised him and gave him a very special reward. “Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen removed my anger from the Jewish people and … behold I give him my blessing of peace.” (Bamidbar 25:11-1). Pinchas realized that what was happening was not only unacceptable but potentially disastrous. The precedent of Zimri, the Prince of Shimon marrying a Midianite princess could have led to a national spiritual and physical tragedy. Someone had to do something, fast. When he reminded Moshe Rabbeinu that “haboel aramis kanaim pogim bo” – the penalty for the sin of Zimri was instant death, Moshe Rabbeinu told him to carry out the punishment himself. Pinchos did so with zeal. He ignored the danger he was putting himself in and did what he had to do. What a hero! What a tzaddik! What a rôle model. So what’s the problem?
In last week’s parsha, Bilaam asked tamos nafshi mos yesharim – to die like the yesharim. (Bamidbar 23:10) Who are the yesharim and why did Bilaam want to die like them? The Netziv (ibid) explains that yashar refers to the characteristic of kindness bein odom l’chaveiro. Bilaam did not aspire to be a tsaddik or chassid, which he knew he could never achieve. But surely everyone can aspire to be kind to others. This is not a specifically Jewish concept. It is the basis of a functioning society. True, chessed in Jewish terms goes a lot deeper but Bilaam, as he contemplated his plan to uproot the Jewish people, had a pang of conscience and intimated that he would have preferred to die a yoshor, with acts of kindness to his name.
In his introduction to Sefer Bereishis, the Netziv says that Sefer Bereishis is also called Sefer Hayashar because in it we see how our Avos lived with a desire to do good to all people. Avraham Ovinu invited idol worshippers into his home. He davened, even argued with Hashem to save the people of Sodom despite the fact that they represented a way of life diametrically opposed to his.
In Parshas Haazinu (Devarim 32:4), Hashem is described as tsaddik veyoshor. The Netziv says that this is a prophetic acceptance and tzidduk hadin that Hashem will later destroy both Batei Hamikdash. Hashem was a Tzaddik when He destroyed the first Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of avoda zoro, shefichus domim and gilui aroyos (Yuma 9b). He was a Yashar when He destroyed the second Beis Hamikdash because the people were guilty of Sinas Chinam. (ibid) The Natziv says, “The people were tzadikim and chasidim but were not yeshorim. Because of the sinas chinam in their hearts, if anyone differed slightly from their way of yiras Hashem, they suspected that they were tzedukim and apirkorsim. This attitude eventually led to no less than shefichas yomim,. We describe Hashem as being yoshor because He cannot tolerate such tzaddikim. Even though what they do is leshem shomayim, their behavior destroys society.”
Sometimes we hear the claim that they are merely following the example of Pinchas, who fearlessly and unhesitatingly showed zero tolerance to Zimri. The difference is that what Zimri was doing was unquestionably a grave sin and Hashem had given specific instructions for dealing with it. This can in no way be compared to physically attacking somebody who adheres to a different path in avodas Hashem following his own Rebbe. The Netziv says that such behaviour destroys our society and makes us unworthy of a Beis Hamikdash.
It is well known that our great Gedolim differed in their approaches to the State of Israel. All were against the concept of a secular Jewish state. The Chazon Ish, the Steipler Rov, Rav Shach, Rav Eliyashiv and many Rebbes all decided to work within the system to fight for the rights of Torah and the Torah-observant citizens of Israel and encouraged people to vote in elections so that their representatives should be able to fight the Government at the highest level. Others led by the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Shmuel Wosner, Rav Moshe Sternbuch and many other tzaddikim consider this forbidden and they refused to be involved in national elections although the Satmar Rebbe was lenient in local elections. These are two ways both led by great rabbonim. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim. It is not for us to say who is right and who is wrong. But based on the Netziv we have quoted, we can see how wrong and dangerous it is to attack those who follow a different but acceptable path in avodas Hashem. We have unfortunately seen how sharp words have led to violence and the consequences can be tragic. We all have much to do within our own path of avodas Hashem. With mutual respect, ahavas habrios, and excellence in midos bein odom l’chaveiro we can achieve so much more. We can even merit the transformation of Av to a month of rejoicing and the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash.
My new sefer The Hidden Light is now on the shelves and selling “like hot cakes.”