By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
What are we to make of Phinehas (Pinchas), our parashah’s namesake? The Torah itself seems to have an ambivalent attitude toward this grandson of Aaron the High Priest, who was himself to assume that office. He was a man of impeccable pedigree, a dedicated servant of the LORD. On the other hand, his act of vigilante justice, killing the flagrantly disobedient Zimri and his Moabite consort Cozbi (in last week’s parashah) by impaling them both on his spear, now elicits an ambiguous response. True, the plague from which the Israelites had been suffering came to an abrupt halt. The “pact of peace” (berit shalom; Num. 25:12) that the LORD offers him seems a bit tongue-in-cheek, though, or not fully sincere. The Torah displays its ambivalence visually: the letter vav in the word "shalom" is broken in two. The yod in the word "Pinchas" (Num. 25:11), meanwhile, is abnormally small, perhaps indicating the eclipsed presence of the God whose name begins with that letter.
The rabbis of classical Judaism did not know what to do with him either. In a flight of fancy, a classic Aramaic Torah translation, Targum Yonatan, portrays Phinehas pursuing Balaam, would-be prophet of Israel’s doom, even chasing him up into the air. The sky is no limit for Phinehas’ zeal. Alternatively, a classic midrash, Kohelet Rabbah, tells us that the holy spirit was withheld from him for two centuries, a statement that leaves us perplexed about chronology but whose point is underscored by that very exaggeration.
In fact, the Bible itself shows us what attitude might best be adopted toward this holy hothead. He turns up again at the end of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. The two and a half tribes that had opted to settle outside the Promised Land, east of the Jordan, are sent home in chapter 22, and on their way, just before they cross over the border and leave the Land, they stop to build a large hilltop altar. This enrages the other nine and a half tribes, who fear that the altar’s builders regard it as an alternative to centralized Israelite worship. Gathering for a military attack, they first send a delegation to their cousins in trans-Jordan to remonstrate with them, claiming a cultic split might mean “your children will prevent our children from worshiping the LORD”.
And who is dispatched at the head of the delegation of ten tribal chieftains? None other than Phinehas, the person who, when riled up by someone’s violation of the divine order, is most likely to impale first and ask questions later. This is brinksmanship at its best. “Hey,” the ten chieftains might well have said, “we are reasonable people. We are willing to hear what you have to say and try to come to some agreement, but that Phinehas—he could just fly off the handle. If you don’t come right out and say you have no use for that altar—and pronto—who knows what he might do?”
Radicals have their uses, and moderates know how to deploy them to their own advantage. The trans-Jordanian tribes reply in (feigned?) pious horror, pledging that they intended no breach in the unity of the tribes. Phinehas takes no action—but maybe his presence is what keeps the break-away tribes from breaking ranks and going it alone.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman heads the Masorti Bet Din of Eretz Yisrael. He is grateful to Dov Rabinowitz for several key insights in this essay.