Friday, July 02, 2010

Zimri the hero?

The gemara (Nazir 23b) compares the act of adultery committed by Tamar with that committed by Zimri. The former produced kings and prophets, the latter led to the death of hundreds. The Shem m’Shmuel quotes his father as teaching that although these acts had very different outcomes, the very fact that the gemara compares them reveals that they share a common denominator -- they both were motivated by the best of intentions. Just as Tamar was motivated l’shem shamayim, so too was Zimri motivated l’shem shamayim. He believed that his relationship with Kozbi was what Hashem wanted; his intention was for the sake of Heaven.

An aveira lishma is a dangerous thing. If even the slightest tinge of she’lo lishma creeps into the equation, the entire act is sinful. It was this slight tinge of she’lo lishma that only Pinchas was able to detect (see the Ishbitzer in Mei HaShiloach) and which prompted him to act.

The Yerushalmi (Sanhedrin 9:7) relates that there was an effort to place Pinchas in niduy in response to his act. At first glance this punishment makes no sense. If the people thought Pinchas was guilty of killing an innocent man, then they should have judged him as a murderer. If he did nothing wrong, then why censure him?

The Shem m’Shmuel explains that the people knew what Zimri did appeared wrong, but they appreciated his intentions as being l’shem shamayim. Beis Din, however, passes judgment based only on the facts of the case, not intentions. Pinchas could not be condemned as a murderer because his response did fit the facts, but the people could still censure him for not respecting what they thought were the pure motives of Zimri.

With this background we can better appreciate the precision in Rashi's words. Rashi writes that the gossip of the camp was that Pinchas was not worthy of the act he performed, as his great-grandfather Yisro fattened cattle for idol worship. Why did the people not seize on the fact that Pinchas' great-grandfather Yisro actually worshipped avodah zara, a far greater sin than merely fattening the cows to use as offerings!?

The Shem m’Shmuel beautifully explains that knocking Pinchas in this way perfectly reflected what people thought of his actions. Whether a cow is skinny or fat is merely a matter of appearance. The purpose of any offering is to sprinkle the blood, the innards of the animal, on the altar – the animal’s size is irrelevant. There halacha sees no merit in delaying a korban just to fatten an animal. The people charged Pinchas with being driven, like his grandfather, by superficial appearance. They claimed he killed Zimri in his zeal because he was blind to the pnimiyus, Zimri’s inner intent and motivation, and looked only at the surface of events. Pinchas failed in their eyes to show sensitivity to that which lay below the surface.

The Torah responds to these charges by connecting Pinchas to Aharon. The Maharal teaches that Aharon embodied the ideal of pnimiyus, as we see reflected in his name. The letter hey is the middle letter of the first ten letters of the aleph-beis, the letter nun is the middle letter of the letters with gematriya 10-90, the letter reish is the middle letter of the letters with gematriya values 200-400, the aleph is the beginning, the most fundamental point of pnimiyus. Pinchas did not act against Zimri because he was oblivious to pnimiyus, but rather because he was connected to pnimiyus on a deeper level than all others and could see the limits of their piety.

Feel free to skip reading my editorializing here. There was an article (link) written by a local Rabbi condemning the decision of a local shul to invite Sara Hurwitz to serve as Scholar in Residence. The article uses the RCA, NCYI, and Agudah decision to object to women’s ordination as an excuse to deny Sarah Hurwitz the right to speak. It demonizes all who disagree as acting with the intent to undermine our “ancient mesorah,” it impugns their actions as being motivated “for the sake of feminism and perceived equality”, it bemoans the rejection of “da’as torah” in this area as a bizayon haTorah. There is nothing of substance I can say in response to the article because the article makes no substantive argument -- it simply defames the intentions of others and derides their position.

I don’t view these type attacks as coming from a modern day Pinchas, but rather as the actions of a modern day Zimri. Zimri too wrapped himself in the mantle of “l’shem shamayim.” Zimri had communal support on his side, he could point to kol korei’s from the RCA and Agudah of his day protesting the act of Pinchas. Zimri, not Pinchas, was viewed as an unimpeachable paragon of piety.

But Zimri was wrong.

I am not saying that we should applaud the decision to ordain women. I am saying that our objections should be voiced with civility and respect. We should not deny others the opportunity to be heard, especially when they are speaking in their own venue and not ours, and it's not for one Rav to dictate policy for the community at large. The popular perception of who the villian is and who the hero is is often wrong -- it takes reflection and deep thought to get to the truth, and public grandstanding and demagoguery adds nothing of value to that process. Greater zeal does not always reflect greater wisdom.


  1. "I am saying that our objections should be voiced with civility and respect."

    You can't use Pinchas as an example for that!


  2. Anonymous6:44 AM

    i think theres a big q on all of this. mekoshesh lshem shamiam acc to r akiva and yet they killed him see tos in yesh nochalin. now even though the mahrasha says there that the leshem shamiam turns it into a melcho sheaina trricha lgufa, nonetheless it was just to kill him bc aino ela lfi ma sheaniam roaot. and aside from that r elchanon argues there on the maharasha. so basically yea that cant be used to explain the nidui desire on pinchas or to justify zimris actions. and even if it could justify, still, the mekoshesh was to teach klal yisroel what missa you get whereas by zimri there was no such purpose involved.

  3. >>>so basically yea that cant be used to explain the nidui desire on pinchas or to justify zimris actions.

    I don't understand what you are saying. The whole point of the Maharasha is exactly to justify the actions of the mekoshesh (BTW, the Targum Yonasan also seems to learn that it was l'shem shamayim) -- it was an aveira lishma. Nonetheless, he was chayav misa (which was what he wanted). Justification doesn't mean ptur from onshin. Zimri was also l'shem shamayim, albeit with a different intention (he did not want to get misa.)

  4. Anonymous8:00 PM

    granted. but it wont fit for an explanation of the yerushalmi-since the misa was justified

  5. it fits the ylmi precisely because the misa for zimri was justified -- otherwise why would pinchas not be chayav misa for killing him? where do you get a chiyuv niduy from?

  6. Anonymous11:23 PM

    i dont know. where do you get a chiyuv nidui from. i understood it to mean hes chayav nidui for killing zimri as a wrongdoing yet hes not chayav misa bc well i dont know why maybe bc pinchas thought it was justified. butin any case yea where does the chiyuv nidui come from in this case. and is it in the list of 24

  7. Please explain the lshaim shamayim, especially the way zimri undermined moshe publicly