Accepting the Consequences

Dena Weiss

Parashat Pinhas

Pinhas is a complex character. On the one hand, he is a hero. It is he and only he who is willing to take matters into his own hands to defend God’s honor. His violent heroics soothe God’s jealousy and save many lives in the process. However, the Rabbinic tradition is equivocal on how to read Pinhas and his legacy. We could try to decide which reading is correct and declare Pinhas as either righteous or problematic, or choose to draw an entirely flattering or entirely condemnatory image of who he is. However, we can also use these differing readings together and understand that Pinhas is both. Reading Pinhas in all his complexity will enable us to construct a more nuanced picture of what it means to read the same act as both positive and negative, and often how complicated it can be for anyone to do “the right thing.”

The story of Pinhas begins at the conclusion of last week’s parashah:

במדבר כה:ג-ח

וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר וַיִּחַר אַף ה' בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל: וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה קַח אֶת כָּל רָאשֵׁי הָעָם וְהוֹקַע אוֹתָם לַה' נֶגֶד הַשָּׁמֶשׁ וְיָשֹׁב חֲרוֹן אַף ה' מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל: וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל שֹׁפְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֲנָשָׁיו הַנִּצְמָדִים לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר: וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל אֶחָיו אֶת הַמִּדְיָנִית לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד: וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ: וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הַקֻּבָּה וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת שְׁנֵיהֶם אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת הָאִשָּׁה אֶל קֳבָתָהּ וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: 


BeMidbar 25:3-8

Israel cleaved to Ba’al Pe’or and God was furious at Israel. God said to Moshe, “Take all of the leaders of the people and impale them facing the sun and God’s fury will be rescinded from Israel.” Moshe said to the judges of Israel, “Each man should kill his people who are cleaving to Ba’al Pe’or.” And behold there was a man from Benei Yisrael who came and he brought the Midianite woman before his brethren in the sight of Moshe and the congregation of Benei Yisrael as they were crying at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Pinhas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the Priest saw this and he got up from within the congregation and he took a spear in his hand. He pursued the Israelite man to the tent and he stabbed both of them, the Israelite man and the woman through her stomach, and the plague upon Benei Yisrael was stopped.


The men of Benei Yisrael find themselves seduced into sexual impropriety and idolatry by the Midianite women and Ba’al Pe’or. God, displeased, asks Moshe and the leadership to take action. Before they do, there is an act of provocation committed. Pinhas stands up in reaction and slays the Israelite man and his Midianite consort, stopping the plague which is the result of God’s fury. In the continuation of the story, God grants Pinhas a reward for his zealous act:

במדבר כה:י-יג

וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי: לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלם: וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:


BeMidbar 25:10-13

God spoke to Moshe saying: Pinhas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Priest rescinded my fury from upon Benei Yisrael in his avenging My vengeance in their midst and I did not finish off Benei Yisrael in My vengeance. Therefore say that I am giving him My covenant of peace. And it will be a covenant of eternal priesthood for him and his progeny after him since he took vengeance for his god and he atoned for Benei Yisrael.


A straightforward reading of the text indicates that Pinhas’s behavior is approved of and rewarded by God. Pinhas atoned for the people and received a divine promise in recompense. However, there are elements of the story in the biblical telling that raise the interpretive antennae of our Rabbis. First, Pinhas’s approach seems particularly bold when seen in the light of its context. It appears that a convening of judges took place at the behest of God and under the supervision of Moshe, a due process that is somewhat shockingly interrupted by Pinhas’s unilateral act. And second, the “reward” that Pinhas receives is a covenant of peace. This could be read to indicate some displeasure on God’s part with Pinhas’s violent response or violent tendencies.

Pinhas’s boldness is noticed by the Midrash in BeMidbar Rabbah:

במדבר רבה כ:כה

וַיַּרְא פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר (במדבר כה:ז), וְכֻלָּם לֹא רָאוּ? וְהָכְתִיב לְעֵינֵי משֶׁה וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל (במדבר כה:ו)! אֶלָּא רָאָה מַעֲשֶׂה וְנִזְכַּר הֲלָכָה: הַבּוֹעֵל אֲרָמִית קַנָּאִין פּוֹגְעִין בּוֹ. וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה (במדבר כה:ז), מֵהֵיכָן עָמַד, אֶלָּא שֶׁהָיוּ נוֹשְׂאִין וְנוֹתְנִין בַּדָּבָר אִם הוּא חַיָּב מִיתָה אִם לָאו, עָמַד מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה וְנִתְנַדֵּב וְלָקַח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ…


BeMidbar Rabbah 20:25

Pinhas ben Elazar saw (BeMidbar 25:7)... And everyone else didn’t see?! But it is written [that the offending Israelite acted] before his brethren in the sight of Moshe and the congregation of Benei Yisrael (BeMidbar 25:6)! Rather he saw the incident and he was reminded of the halakhah: One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by zealous avengers. He got up from within the congregation (BeMidbar 25:7), from where did he stand? Rather they were deliberating about the matter, if he was liable for death or not. [Pinhas] stood up from within the congregation and he volunteered and took a spear in his hand…


Although this passage doesn’t explicitly condemn Pinhas, we see an ambivalence towards his behavior and a subtle critique. We learn that the matter was in the process of being adjudicated by the counsel of judges, when Pinhas remembers the halakhah and takes matters into his own hands. The Yalkut Shimoni expands on the scene: 

ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת בלק, רמז תשעא

וירא פינחס בן אלעזר. מה ראה? אמר רב: ראה מעשה ונזכר הלכה. אמר ליה: אחי אבי אבא, לא כך לימדתנו ברדתך מהר סיני: הבועל ארמית קנאין פוגעין בו? אמר ליה: קריינא דאגרתא איהו ליהוי פרוונקא. ושמואל אמר: ראה שאין חכמה ואין תבונהלנגד ה' (משלי כא:ל), כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב.


Yalkut Shimoni Parashat Balak #771 

Pinhas ben Elazar saw. What did he see? Rav said: He saw the incident and he was reminded of the halakhah. He said to [Moshe], “Great-uncle, didn’t you teach us when you came down from Mt. Sinai, One who is intimate with an Aramean woman is attacked by zealous avengers?” [Moshe] said to him, “The one who reads the letter should be the messenger.” And Shmuel said: He saw that there is no wisdom or insight… contrary to God (Mishlei 21:30)—any place where there is a violation of God’s name one does not show honor to the teacher. 


According to both Rav and Shmuel, Pinhas made a choice regarding what to do which was in tension with showing proper deference to Moshe. According to Rav, Pinhas somewhat impetuously teaches back to Moshe the halakhah that Moshe taught him. Moshe somewhat cryptically says that since Pinhas is the one who read the letter he should be the one to obey its demands. This indicates that Moshe did not intend to share this halakhah by himself “reading the letter”, perhaps because he did not want to execute its contents. The consequence of Pinhas’s choice to share the halakhah is that he would himself be called upon to be the one who takes the role of avenger. And, according to Shmuel, Pinhas didn’t even bother to consult with Moshe. He decided that this was an emergency situation and therefore didn’t give Moshe his due honor. Even if Pinhas did make the correct assessment, his was an approach that was disrespectful to Moshe.

The Talmud Yerushalmi states explicitly that Pinhas’s behavior was frowned upon:

תלמוד ירושלמי סנהדרין ט:ז, דף כז טור ב

וירא פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן. מה ראה? ראה את המעשה ונזכר להלכה: הבועל ארמית הקנאים פוגעין בהן. תני: שלא ברצון חכמים, ופינחס שלא ברצון חכמים. אמר רבי יודה בר פזי: ביקשו לנדותו, אילולי שקפצה עליו רוח הקודש ואמרה: והיתה לו ולזרעו אחריו ברית כהונת עולם וגו'.


Talmud Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7 / 27b

Pinhas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon, the priest, saw. What did he see? He saw the incident and was reminded of the halakhah: Those who are intimate with Aramean women are attacked by zealous avengers. It is taught—against the will of the Sages. And Pinhas also [behaved] against the will of the Sages. Rav Yehudah ben Pazi said: They wanted to excommunicate him and would have were it not for a holy spirit that jumped in on his behalf and said: And it will be a covenant of eternal priesthood for him and his progeny after him...


According to the Yerushalmi, Pinhas was correct in his assessment of what the law was, but incorrect in his decision to apply it. Rav Yehudah ben Pazi says that the only thing that kept him from being punished for his behavior is that God stepped in and declared him worthy of a covenant. However, even this reward for (or consequence of) his heroics betrays the complex nature of his heroics:

במדבר רבה כא:א 

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן (במדבר כה:יא), אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בְּדִין הוּא שֶׁיִּטֹּל שְׂכָרוֹ. לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם (במדבר כה:יב), גָּדוֹל הַשָּׁלוֹם שֶׁנָּתַן לְפִנְחָס, שֶׁאֵין הָעוֹלָם מִתְנַהֵג אֶלָּא בְשָׁלוֹם, וְהַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ שָׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם (משלי ג:יז).


BeMidbar Rabbah 21:1

Pinhas son of Elazar son of Aharon the priest (BeMidbar 25:11). The Holy Blessed One said, By law he should take his reward. Therefore say that I am giving him My covenant of peace (BeMidbar 25:12). Great is the peace that was given to Pinhas, for the world only runs through peace and the Torah itself is entirely peace, as it says its paths are paths of pleasantness and all its ways are peace (Mishlei 3:17).


This midrash subtly highlights two elements of this reward which can be seen as casting aspersions on Pinhas’s behavior. The first is that God comes in and states explicitly that Pinhas deserves this reward. When behavior is uncontroversially good and irrefutably praiseworthy, no heavenly voice needs to come in and assert the appropriateness of a reward. Furthermore, when the reward is the absolute opposite of the behavior, it could also be seen as a slight chastisement. God’s reward to Pinhas is not a sword or a medal of bravery, an appointment to be general of an army. Rather, it is a covenant of peace and, according to the midrash, a little homily on the value of peace. If the verse had not framed this as a reward, any reader of the Torah would understand this as a correction, if not a punishment, as if to say: because you were so violent, here is My covenant of peace.

Is Pinhas overly zealous or is he saving the Jewish people? Is Pinhas obeying the halakhah or is he overstepping his bounds and being disrespectful to Moshe and the judges? Is God pleased with Pinhas or does God want him to change and become a quiet Kohen and a person of peace? The answer to all of these questions appears to be “yes.” Pinhas’s actions exemplify the quandary of a “necessary evil.” Pinhas’s rash behavior would have been completely unacceptable in any other context and—as Moshe’s reluctance suggests—by any other person. And God made sure to teach Pinhas that lesson.

What we need to learn from this incident is that doing the right thing is often complicated. It often involves doing something that makes us feel uncomfortable. It often involves taking a stand in a way that might cause harm to someone, that might seem extreme. What we learn from Pinhas is that sometimes doing the right thing involves making a moral compromise, allowing our hands to get dirty and our reputation to get stained. But, we also learn from Moshe’s refusal to be the one who himself executes the halakhah. We need to be extremely cautious in taking on these morally questionable tasks. If we do something heroic once in our lifetimes, we can be rightly known as heroes; if we find ourselves constantly volunteering to do complicated and questionable things, we need to do some serious reflection on who we are and what we are truly motivated by and what we are truly accomplishing. What we learn from God is that when we do something good that involves negative consequences we must take absolute responsibility for the harm that we have done. The fact that we have done harm in the service of doing good does not make us blameless, it merely means that we can and must accept the responsibility for what we’ve done in good conscience.

This attitude is reflected in a brief, but revealing story from Massekhet Sanhedrin: 

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין כו:

הנהו קבוראי דקבור נפשא ביום טוב ראשון של עצרת. שמתינהו רב פפא ופסלינהו לעדות. ואכשרינהו רב הונא בריה דרב יהושע.  

אמר ליה רב פפא: והא רשעים נינהו!  

סברי מצוה קא עבדי.

והא קא משמתינא להו!  

סברי כפרה קא עבדי לן רבנן:


Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 26b

Those gravediggers, who buried a person on the first day of Shavuot: Rav Pappa excommunicated them and disqualified them as witnesses, but Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua deemed them qualified. 

Rav Pappa said [to Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua]: But they were found guilty! 

[Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua responded]: They thought they were doing a mitzvah

[Rav Pappa responded]: But I excommunicated them!

[Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua answered]: They thought, “The Sages are enabling us to atone.”


Burying the dead on Yom Tov is a violation of the laws against doing labor on Shabbat and Holidays. However, these gravediggers were concerned for the honor of the dead and decided to proceed with the burial on Yom Tov. Although they were mistaken, their attitude reflects that they understand that sometimes a commendable action can have uncommendable elements and, more significantly, their willingness to accept the consequences for doing what they think is right. They understand that they may need atonement from the rabbis for what they are doing, even as they believe that what they are doing is good and necessary.

This understanding is dangerous and frightening: when the bad is mixed with the good, how do we know what we are supposed to do?! The story of Pinhas gives us two guidelines. The first is to listen to our instincts. If we feel a strong sense of ambivalence and feel more hesitant than committed to doing something controversial then we should listen to our intuition and not do the act. If we understand that this is something that we have to do, but feel concerned about negative repercussions, then we still need to listen to ourselves, be guided by our moral compass and take the responsibility upon ourselves. If we feel like Moshe about the halakhah about avengers, then we should not publicly teach it. If we feel like Pinhas did, that this behavior was a desecration and needed to be stopped at all costs, then we ought to take up our spears.

The second lesson is to act responsibly. We need to acknowledge that sometimes our beliefs and actions are controversial for good reason. We should listen to the people who disagree with us and use these conversations as a way to understand what the collateral damage may be of our behavior. When we choose to take a stand, we need to take a hard look at the possible fallout and do our best to minimize any negative results. We must be completely prepared to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions and we must know what those consequences are. If we caused someone else harm as a result of our actions, we need to apologize to them even if we don’t regret what we have done. Collateral damage does not necessarily invalidate our decision, but it can if we are not prepared to reckon with it. We may be brave, but only ethically so. We should not look to become heroes, but be willing to accept the role if that is what we are.

1 Ba’al Pe’or is the name of a non-Israelite deity worshiped by the Moabites; Pe’or is the name of a mountain in Mo’av where the deity resides. The rituals of Ba’al Pe’or presumably, from the story, involved sexual behavior.

2 It is also possible to translate this as “hang” which might be a play on words of “heads” of the people which I translated as “leaders.”

3 The understanding is that edah, congregation, refers to the high court. See Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 2a.

4 Lit. apportion.

5 This can also be translated as “by logic.”

6 The Talmudic context is the discussion as to whether or not a person who has sinned can be considered a valid witness. 

7 The term resha’im is often rendered as “evil” or wicked” people, but in fact it merely designates someone who has been found guilty, not someone who is inherently flawed.

8 We can infer from the fact that the story says that it is the first day of Yom Tov that there will be a second day of Yom Tov “of the diaspora” therefore the gravediggers didn’t want to leave the body out, since it would mean that the body would stay unburied for at least two days. On a regular Shabbat or a Yom Tov that lasts one day, the gravediggers would not have buried the body.