Too Tempting To Be Wrong

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG-13

In the beginning of this week’s Parshah, Pinchas, after whom the Parshah is named, is rewarded with G-d’s covenant of peace after having zealously defended G-d’s honor.

What did Pinchas do to earn such distinction?

Toward the end of last week’s Parshah, after Bala’am’s failure to curse the Jews, they nonetheless got themselves in trouble by succumbing to a campaign of sexual and idolatrous seduction by the daughters of Moab. A plague of retribution broke out among the Israelites, and G-d commanded Moses to deliver the death penalty to the nation’s leaders. Moses, in turn, commanded the Israelite judges to execute all of those who had become “attached” to the Moabite idol “Ba’al Peor.” However, before Moses’s instructions could be carried out, the Torah tells of a leader of the tribe of Simeon named Zimri, who “brought near” a Midianite woman named Cozbi, before the eyes of the entire congregation. Most commentaries understand Zimri to have engaged in sexual relations with Cozbi in a highly public and provocative manner. He had sex with her in a tent, perhaps, but in a way that left no doubt as to what he was doing.[1]

Pinchas saw Zimri’s actions as a public affront and a direct and open challenge to G-d, and refused to let it stand. He took a spear and followed Zimri and Cozbi into the tent, and drove the spear through both of them as they were coupling.[2] Indeed, commentaries state that Pinchas drove the spear through their genitals mid-coitus, so that none would be able to doubt that his actions were justified.[3] At that moment, the plague stopped — and our Parshah begins with G-d’s praise of Pinchas’s deed.[4]

Now, I am generally skeptical of pseudo-intellectual approach to Jewish tradition that sometimes prompts us to reinvent the Torah’s stories, turning the hero into the villain, and exalting our enemies above our friends. It has become popular to “out-think” the Torah, and to introduce a moral equivalence among the archetypal characters presented therein. Was Pharaoh really so bad? Was Moses really so good? Was Esther truly the heroine of the Purim story? Wasn’t Vashti’s attitude more in keeping with contemporary feminist values?

I can certainly appreciate the temptation. After all, in many respects, our culture today has moved far from the moral framework established by the Torah, and so there is often some dissonance between our own sensibilities and those imparted by the Torah’s teachings. Some would say that our culture has drifted from Torah; perhaps others might say that it has progressed from Torah. Some would say that the Torah is our anchor in a tempestuous storm, preserving our position and direction; perhaps others might describe Torah as a shackle, constraining us from progressing towards a religion-free state of being.

Regardless, it would take a certain, special kind of arrogance were I to conclude that I am at the zenith and the climax of intellectual achievement; that human enlightenment has been on a steady incline since the time that the Torah was given, and that we have now so far progressed beyond the primitive views and understandings of the earliest Jewish thinkers, that we ought not feel constrained to see their heroes and villains as our own. Basic humility would caution us to at least consider the possibility that the millennia may have caused us to drift further from the source, and that we may be sliding rather than climbing. And because of that possibility, we probably shouldn’t be too quick to weigh anchor, to get rid of our safety net, to sever ties with our past values.

That said, there is a fairly provocative and unconventional view of the Zimri/Pinchas story that is still worth sharing.

In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (1801-1854), commonly known as the Izhbitze Rebbe, offers a much different interpretation of the story. In his own words:

Let it not occur to you, G-d forbid, that Zimri was an adulterer, G-d forbid, for G-d would never have devoted a chapter in the Torah to an adulterer! Rather, there is a secret in all of this.

For there are ten points in sexual immorality. The first is when someone prepares himself and deliberately seeks out a sinful situation; in other words, he himself draws temptation upon himself.

But after that, there are nine more levels, and at each of those levels, a person’s free will is gradually taken away, such that it becomes impossible for him to escape sin. Until the tenth level. This is when someone genuinely tries to distance himself from temptation and to guard himself against sin with all of his might, to the point that he is simply incapable of any further precautions. Then, when temptation nonetheless overpowers him, and he performs the act, it was certainly G-d’s will that he do so…

This is what happened here. For Zimri in truth was one who guarded himself against all sinful temptation, and now it suddenly occurred to him that Cozbi was his rightful mate, since he found himself unable to resist her…

So we find that Pinchas in this incident was like a child, in that he did not appreciate the depth of the matter, and viewed things from a superficial, human perspective, and not more. But G-d nevertheless loved him and agreed with him, because in his mind, he did something important, and demonstrated self-sacrifice for what he thought was right.[5]

For obvious reasons, this quickly became one of the most famous passages of the Izhbitze Rebbe‘s work, and indeed, catapulted his writings from their relative obscurity. After all, a superficial reading of this interpretation is that Zimri — along with anyone who truly cannot control their actions — really shouldn’t be blamed; and that Pinchas scarcely had the right to kill him — because Zimri’s lustful conduct was G-d’s will.

One can see how such an idea would give license to all of us to exaggerate our inner struggles, and quickly reach the conclusion that there is no more that we can possibly do to master our inner selves. We cannot resist, and therefore our sins our G-d’s will.

They may well be.

However, the Ishbitze Rebbe’s student, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz (1823-1900), known as Tzadok of Lublin, was quick to clarify: Sometimes, he agreed, a person is confronted by a temptation so great that it is literally as though he were forced, and he receives no punishment, as it is beyond his control. However, this is subject to an important qualification: One may not come to this conclusion about one’s own challenges, as one must always assume to yet have the strength to withstand temptation. We can never give up trying. Regarding Zimri, Tzadok of Lublin concluded that Zimri made the mistake of thinking that his temptation was so great that it must have been G-d’s will that he succumb.[6]

Neither the Ishbitze Rebbe’s nor Tzadok of Lublin’s interpretation of the incident with Zimri sit very well with the text itself. That text is rather harsh about Zimri’s actions, and his brazenness in creating a public spectacle. If it was simply a matter of giving in to temptation, wouldn’t he at least have tried to sin more inconspicuously? Similarly, G-d’s ringing endorsement of Pinchas’s zealotry also suggests that Pinchas was more than a mere hothead: Pinchas and his descendants became eternal members of the coveted priesthood, Pinchas received G-d’s covenant of peace, and the plague that had befallen the Israelites stopped immediately even though those guilty of idol-worship had not yet been punished. In other words, Pinchas’ execution of Zimri and Cozbi was so effective that G-d found no need for further retribution against the Israelites. It certainly doesn’t seem as though G-d viewed Zimri as an innocent, or even merely weak.

Nevertheless, the underlying message is a good one. For ultimately, we can never know the extent of another person’s struggles. We don’t know whether he invited temptation upon himself, or whether he is merely a pawn in G-d’s master plan; a plan that requires him to sin despite his very best efforts. To ourselves we must be constantly demanding and vigilant, always insisting on being better. Toward others, however, we must leave judgment in G-d’s hands.

Works Cited

[1] Numbers, 25:1-6.

[2] Numbers, 25:7-8.

[3] See Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b.

[4] Numbers, 25:10-13.

[5] See Mei HaShiloach, Pinchas, 54a.

[6] See Tzidkas HaTzaddik, 43.