5768 - #35
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
It seems that a question that constantly emerges as we read the Chumash text, both in general and specifically in Sefer Bamidbar, is: what were they thinking? The actions and presentations of the generation of the desert seem often, simply, to be bewildering. So we ask: how could they have done what they did? How could they have said what they said? We theorize how we would have reacted to the events that they witnessed and, often, cannot even see how they were able to have done what they did, to have responded so differently than we postulate we would have. How could someone who experienced the Sinaitic Revelation, less then six weeks later, offer sacrifices to a Golden Calf? How could individuals who lived in a world in which Gods Presence was manifested so openly have, in any way, questioned anything in regard to God?
Answers to these questions, of course, abound but the significance of the depth inherent in this rift in understanding cannot be overlooked. On the surface, our perceived, theoretical inability to understand the motivations for such negative behaviour may even seem to be somewhat praiseworthy; to us, sin is not even able to be contemplated. Yet, an attempt to understand the motivation and reason for these mistaken outlooks still seems necessary. We cannot simply reduce these behaviours, by what may be Klal Yisraels most illustrious generation, to foolishness or mental instability; therefore we feel obligated to attempt to give them some understanding. Invariably, though, we also thereby question the propriety of our inherent position or, at least, the surety with which we may hold this position. There is a lack in not being able to have even contemplated these sins. Our simple righteousness is thereby tainted.
In not being able to fully understand the motivations and reasons for the generation of the desert to have acted improperly, we actually hinder the ability to understand the correctness of the proper behaviour that should have been undertaken. We ask: what were they thinking? The correct behaviour that should have been carried out seems to be so obvious and it is what we believe we would have clearly done. The answer, though, seems to indicate to us that to truly have acted in a most righteous manner, it would first be necessary to understand the argument for adopting a totally inappropriate behaviour. Only in subsequently overpowering this argument does the correct undertaking actually meet its full value. We thus ask the question also most seriously what were they thinking? Without understanding the theory behind the incorrect conclusion we cannot truly understand the theory behind the correct conclusion. Our inability to even contemplate their sins is actually a weakness in our righteousness.
T.B. Sanhedrin 82b presents an understanding of Bamidbar
25:11 that, in many ways, illustrates this very
point. The gemara questions why this verse refers
to Pinchus as the descendent of Aharon.1 The gemara
explains that the tribes were belittling Pinchus, saying
how could this descendent from an idolater2
have been so presumptuous to have killed a prince from
one of the tribes of Israel.3 The verse thus
presents Pinchus paternal lineage, thereby
indicating that this attack was completely appropriate.
Strangely, though, in that the Torah felt the need to
respond to this critique of Pinchus there would actually
seem to have been some merit in this attack thus
necessitating a Torah response. How could this be? What
were these tribes thinking in critiquing Pinchus who
killed someone who was publicly sinning? Pinchus also
Torah Temima, Bamidbar 25:11, note 22, in one of
his explanations of why the tribes challenged Pinchus,
refers us to the view of T.J. Sanhedrin 9:7 which
presents the idea that the wise men of Israel were
originally concerned with Pinchus actions.4
There was apprehension with this law that effectively
allowed a zealot to take the law into his own hands even
in the presence of those that are greater them him. There
was further concern with an individual who would act
under the protection of such a law; the uneasiness
regarding Pinchus was real. Eitz Yosef,
Sanhedrin 82b specifically explains this apprehension
more specifically, indicating how the reference to Aharon
was intended to alleviate it. The concern was yehora,
a haughtiness that demonstrates itself in acts of
righteousness. What is done is clearly justifiable, even
potentially praiseworthy, but a question remains as to
the motivation of the person who undertakes such an act.
Was it truly motivated by proper intents or was it
ultimately motivated by a desire to aggrandize oneself
through the performance of a mitzvah, thereby
presenting oneself, even to oneself, as righteous? Who
was Pinchus to have been such a zealot to have undertaken
such behaviour as killing Zimri? This was the question
being posed by the tribes of
The concern for yehora is often difficult to halachically apply. There are times that the demand to perform a mitzvah simply overrides this concern. There are times where we feel that this concern will not arise. There are times, though especially in considering stringencies, that certain behaviours are generally forbidden, even though they may be praiseworthy, because of this concern and the inability of one to properly define his/her motivations. Even regarding an action such as the one done by Pinchus, the tribes were worried for this concern. From questioning what they were thinking, we see the weakness that we have in lacking this concern.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Maharsha, Sandhedrin 82b explains further that Bamidbar 25:7 just stated this, thus - why the need to repeat that his grandfather was Aharon?
2 The gemara would be referring to Pinchus' maternal heredity which, according to Torah Temima, Bamidbar 25:11, note 20 descends from Yitro in that Elazar, Pinchus father, married one of the daughters of Moshes father-in-law. There are other opinions, however, on the lineage of Pinchus mother, all, though, presenting non-Jewish roots. .
3 See Bamidbar 25:14.
3 See, further, Torah Temima, Bamidbar 25:13, note 31.
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