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Pinchas - Such Great Expectations!
By Rabbi Label Lam
Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron the Kohen saw, and stood up from amid the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach- and the plague was halted from the Children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. HASHEM spoke to Moshe, saying: Pinchus son of Elazar, son of Aaron the Kohen turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance.. Therefore say: ‘Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his G-d and he atoned for the Children of Israel. The name of the slain Israelite man who was slain with the Midianitess was Zimri son of Salu, leader of a father's house of the Simeonites. (Bamidbar 25:10-17)
Turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel: Why was HASHEM angry at all of Israel? This teaches that even if one person violates in this area (of lewdness) he can bring anger upon the entire congregation. (Yalkut Pisron Torah)
So I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance: Were all of Israel destroyed? Rather it means to teach us that had Pinchus not prayed then all of Israel would have been annihilated in the plague (and not just 24,000) because all-Israel are guarantors for one another! (Midrash HaGadol)
Here we have two seemingly contradictory Midrashim with opposite lessons about the subtext of the incident with Pinchus and Zimri. One instructs us that because of the reckless behavior of one individual everyone can be put in jeopardy! The other says that because of the virtuous intent and valiant actions of one individual the entire congregation is spared! On a certain level are they not both saying the same thing?!
A single person can do that much harm and a single person can do that much good. A decent person can rescue as a fool can destroy a community in one fell swoop. Is everyone equally endowed with that power? Perhaps, but still one might wonder why the lofty titles of both the protagonist Pinchus and the antagonist Zimri are explicitly spelled out?
In the 3rd Chapter of Pirke Avos it states: ‘Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai says, "One who is awake at night, and one who travels on an isolated road and he turns his attention to foolishness he has put himself in mortal danger."'. What is so perilous here? The simple explanation is that the when a person is in a vulnerable situation either spiritually or physically by being awake at night or traveling alone on a road he must be extra vigilant.
I once heard the following explanation though: One who is awake at night, when the whole world is asleep, that is the one who is alert to his duties in a world where people are shirking theirs, and one who goes on a "road less traveled" because it is true and right and good and although everyone else is riding the popular highway, when those people who occupy uniquely important places in HASHEM's world, if they then turn to emptiness and folly then they have invited mortal danger!
I have often cautioned young initiates who are wearing Yarmulkas outside for the first time to be aware of the exposure that accompanies that seemingly subtle uniform change. "If you are wearing a Yarmulka people outside think you are a Rabbi. If you have a slight beard then you are a Chassidic Rabbi! If you happen to have a hat then you are a Grand Chassidic Rabbi, and if you have a little white in in your beard, then you are the Lubavitcher Rebbe!"
Why the heightened alert? Is it only because we are concerned about the ultra- high standard that others demand of us or is it that HASHEM holds out for us such great expectations?