Kahane on the Parsha
The desecration of the name of the L-rd is the very cardinal of sins. It strikes at the very existence and reality of the G-d of Israel. It is intolerable that it be allowed, and impossible that it not be erased.
When Pinchas beheld the open Chillul Hashem that took place at Shittim, he burned with zealousness over the desecration of G-d's Name. And he looked about to see who, burning with similar indignation, would leap to put a stop to it. At that moment, Pinchas said: "Is there no man here who will kill Zimri?...When he saw that all were silent, he arose himself from the Sanhedrin and killed Zimri" (Sifri, Balak 131)
Note: Pinchas was in the midst of Moses and all the elders of Israel. He waited for them to act, and they did not. And so he, not one of the elders, leaped to end the desecration and put a stop to the plague that was raging in the camp through G-d's wrath. And so, "Pinchas the son of Elazar saw..." (Numbers 25:7). The Tanna Shmuel said, "He saw [and remembered] the verse in Proverbs (21:30): 'There is neither wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the L-rd.' Any time that there exists Chillul Hashem, we don't give respect to the scholar" (Sanhedrin 82a). And Rashi explains, "Therefore, Pinchas did not wait to receive permission from Moses [who hesitated and was subsequently punished as a result, as stated in the Tanchuma] but acted on his own lest the elders, out of fear, not act according to the Law." And he killed the head of a tribe.
And when the angels sought to punish him for acting as he did, and without permission, the Almighty said, "Leave him alone. He is a zealot, the son of zealots; he turned away My wrath and is the son of those who turned away My wrath" [i.e., he comes from the tribe of Levi who turned away G-d's wrath from Israel by killing those who had bowed down to the Golden Calf] (ibid. 82b).
This was the response that the Almighty demanded from the people of Israel, from the leaders of Israel, from someone in Israel. And because Pinchas acted, of him is it said, "Who caused the Holy One Blessed Be He to turn away His wrath and not destroy all Israel? Pinchas" (Tanchuma, Balak 21).
And thus speaks the Law: "Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, turned away My wrath from the Children of Israel when he was zealous for My zealousness in their midst, so I did not consume Israel in My zealousness" (Numbers 25:11)
And thus says the Ibn Ezra: "For he was zealous just as his Maker, of who it is said: 'A G-d of jealousy' (Exodus 20:5). And had he not acted with zealousness, I, G-d, would have destroyed all of Israel."
And the Sforno: "He took My revenge before the eyes of all Israel, so that they were forgiven for not acting to protest the sinners."
And the Ramban: "He was worthy of great honor, for he killed a chief of Israel and the daughter of a gentile king and feared not, because he was zealous for his G-d."
And Rashi: "'When he was zealous for My zealousness,' meaning: when he avenged My vengeance, when he was angry for the wrath that I would have shown. Every expression 'zealous' means one who is anxious to avenge something."
Vengeance is the inability to abide the act of abomination and injustice. It is the need to erase from the land the free perpetration of an act of evil, done without punishment. It is the need to show that in the world of the Almighty one who pollutes and defiles the world by an act contrary to its precepts will be punished.
The Jewish Press, 1980
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Barbara Sandra Ginsberg