Heroic or Sinful?

Zealous acts are not always heroic.


This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

Just before Parashat Pinhas begins, Israelite men have begun sleeping with foreign women. These relations have brought the Israelites to worship foreign gods and have caused, in response, a Divine plague to break out in the Israelite camp. God and Moshe then command the Israelites to slaughter the idol worshipers among the Israelites.

In the very next verse, we learn that Zimri ben Salu (an Israelite) and Kozbi bat Tzur (a Midianite) publicly display their relationship as Zimri takes Kozbi back to his tent to sleep with her. Our parashah opens with the conclusion of the bloody tale as Pinhas slaughters Zimri and Kozbi and ends the plague (Numbers 25).

A Different Interpretation

The surface meaning of the story seems to indicate that Pinhas has acted properly and saved the Israelites. However, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, a Polish Hasidic Rebbe, turns this understanding on its head. He argues that Pinhas is profoundly mistaken. Though it seems that Zimri is acting improperly according to the acknowledged law, he is, according to Rabbi Leiner, following a deeper divine will, which compels him to violate the accepted standards.

Rabbi Leiner teaches that Zimri and Kozbi are cosmic soul-mates and that their joining together is part of the mystical process of tikkun, healing the cosmos, often understood in Kabbalah as the erotic union of masculine and feminine. It is rather Pinhas who, in his immature zealotry and rash judgment, acts wrongly and tragically, failing to see the deeper motivation and attunement of Zimri and Kozbi, failing to see their righteous civil disobedience–their attempt to participate in the healing of the world–for what it is.

Two Kinds of Activism

And so it seems that both Pinhas, according to the pshat (simple meaning) of the text, and Zimri, according to Rabbi Leiner’s understanding, perform acts of radical activism. In the midst of values upturned, they stage their rebellions fervently by taking the law into their own hands and acting on their own beliefs. Yet it seems that both Pinhas and Zimri, though seeking to push their community to adhere to a moral standard, ultimately produce destructive consequences.

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Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels teaches Jewish thought and mysticism at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem.

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