Crimes of Passion

Only a passionate zealous act can respond adequately to sins and crimes of passion.

Commentary on Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-30:1

The Torah portion this week begins with God praising and rewarding Pinchas for an act he committed at the end of last week’s portion; the killing of Zimri ben Salu, one of the heads of the tribe of Shimon, and Kozby bat Zur, a Midianite princess. He killed them because they were having an intimate relationship:

And behold a man from the children of Israel came and brought before his brothers a Midianite woman, before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of Israel…

The Torah tells us that this was not a personal problem, but rather a communal one:

…and the people began to whore with the women of Midian. They called on the people to offer sacrifices to their Gods, and they ate, and bowed down to their Gods.

The Rabbis have wondered why it was davka (specifically) Pinchas who was the one to act against Zimri and Kozbi. Where were Moses, and the other leaders of the people? We know they were aware of the situation; why did they not take action? Why was this relatively unknown member of the priestly family the one to act, and why did he act so violently?

The Rabbis offer an interesting answer. Moses, when faced with the sin of Zimri and Kozbi, did not know what to do. As the Rabbis say, “the halacha (law) escaped him.” For some reason, Moses, the law-giver par excellence, was at a loss as to how to respond legally to this situation. Pinchas, however, remembered the law: “He who has intercourse with a non-Jewish woman, zealots should kill him.” Pinchas, the zealot, and not Moses, the law-giver, remembered this law, and acted on it.

This Rabbinic embellishment to the story only exacerbates our original problem. Why is this sin, the sin of intermarriage (or perhaps a very advanced form of inter-dating), not dealt with in the usual way, as other criminal acts in the Bible are dealt with: through a legal process, with witnesses, a court case, and a judicial decision? Why is it left for “zealots” to kill these particular sinners?

It would seem that the Torah realizes that the crime committed by Zimri is the ultimate crime of passion — a crime rooted in deeply felt emotions, a crime rooted in love. Somehow, a crime of this nature eludes the rigors and strictures of the normal judicial process, which is why Moses “forgot” the law in this case; after all, how can you legislate about love? How can you adjudicate emotions?

That is why the only possible solution, the only possible response, if there is to be a response, must also be extra-legal; the passion of Zimri and Kozby can only be matched by the passion of Pinchas, the zealot. The response to the emotional crime committed here must itself be emotional.

To translate this into a less bloody and violent framework than the one in the Torah portion: Only an intense love relationship with God, the Torah, and the Jewish people can stand up to the act of intermarriage, which is itself an expression of love. The kinds of laws that work in other spheres of human activity will not work here, they do not apply. Only passion can stand up to passion.

Reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.


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