5768 - #35


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 God’s 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 Yisrael’s 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 thereby saved Israel from the wrath of Hashem; what could have been the problem? It seems so obvious to us that Pinchus’ actions were appropriate and, thus, bewildering to us that they would be criticized. Yet the Torah takes these criticisms seriously, answering them through the mention of Aharon’s name as the grandfather of Pinchus. It would seem to be that there was some merit in this assessment of Pinchus’ behaviour and that our original bewilderment in this critique indicates a weakness in our understanding.

            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 Israel – and it was justifiable. Eitz Yosef explains that only one who either is himself/herself a great person or descended from such a great person, and therefore comes by such motivations inherently from his/her upbringing, is able to undertake these actions of a zealot. This was the attack upon Pinchus; his lineage from idolaters can lead us to question whether his motivation was yehora. Thus the Torah tells us that he was descended from Aharon, a forefather that Pinchus was simply emulating and thus his actions were totally proper.

            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.

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Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


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 Moshe’s 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.

(c) Nishma, 2008


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