The passion of a zealot

Insights into People in the Torah; Portion of Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1

Moshe Kempinski

Judaism הכניסו ספר תורה
הכניסו ספר תורה
צילום: PR

Pinchas ( Phineas ) the Levite has a dramatic and fateful encounter in which he kills Zimri the prince of the tribe of Shimon.  "Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal"( Numbers 25:11).

The tribes of Shimon and Levi have an unusual and tempestuous relationship. They were in fact a combustible twosome when together. In an act of anger and revenge they plot and carry out the murder of Shchem ben Chamor and his entire city because of his violation of their sister Dinah.

When Jacob gathers his children to bless them he says of Shimon and Levi the following:

“Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship.Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen. (an allusion to the imprisonment of Joseph) Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

Jacob was acknowledging their passions and pointed to their similar quality of impulsive zeal. Jacob was dispersing them amongst the people so that their overriding passions would be diluted and channeled into positive actions and directions.

The tribe of Levi sctually adapted in that direction long before those of the tribe of Shimon. Yet eventually, in the midst of their dispersal in the territory of Judah, the tribe of Shimon would also adapt their fierce intensity and zeal in other directions. The tribe of Shimon became the teachers of Torah and focused their zeal into the teaching of the young children of the other tribes.

The key seems to be to take control and adapt all the characteristics G-d has given us and learn to channel them into more elevated directions. Otherwise those same passions and drives will take control of us.

The encounter between Pinchas in his encounter with Zimri the prince of the tribe of Shimon highlights with painful clarity this understanding.

We read that Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron receives a blessing after his act of zealotry. And it shall be to him, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood (25:13). Although the priesthood had actually been given to the descendants of Aaron, it was given only to Aaron, his sons, and to the children they would father after their anointing. Pinchas, however, had already been born before that time and only achieved priesthood now. Pinchas until this point was  "only" a member of the tribe of Levi, with all that that entails.

Zimri on the other hand was one of the princes of the tribe of Shimon.


Now the name of the man of Israel that was slain, who was slain with the Midianitish woman, was Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a fathers' house among the Simeonites. (Numbers 25:14)

It is important to note  the painful fact that it was the tribe of Shimon that suffered most dramatically in the plague that followed the wanton behavior with the daughters of Midian.

We read the following:

And it came to pass after the plague, that G-d spoke to Moses... "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel... (26:1)

The Midrash Tanchuma points out that when one compares this new census with the previous ones, one finds that many members of the tribe of Shimon died in this plague due to their sins and that they constituted the greater part, if not all, of the 24,000 who perished in the plague.

Here we see again a coming together of representatives of these two great tribes. Each individual representative carrying within him similar the genetic and spiritual propensity for zeal and impulsive passion. Zimri and others from this tribe let that passion lead them into treacherous waters. Cavorting with the daughters of Midian and succumbing to the lures of the idol worship of Baal Peor was the disastrous result.

Pinchas made different decisions. He channeled his passion so Hashem would say of him “he was very jealous for My sake among them” ( Numbers 25:11).

These are the choices before us every day.

Every morning and evening a Jewish person recites the Shma prayer

    "Hear, O Israel: Hashem our G_d, Hashem is one. And thou shall love Hashem your G_d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Our sages ask why the word “Levavecha” (with all your heart) is written with two letters BET. Should it not have said “Belibcha” with one BET? In the words of the Sifri, this was to teach us that one is to serve G-d, with “both” of our hearts—the yetzer tov (the inclination for good) and the yetzer harah (the inclination for the opposite). That is to say that one must serve Hashem with one’s G-dly soul (nefesh Elokit) as well as with our more selfish animalistic soul (nefesh behemi).

This was the choice that stood before Pinchas and Zimri. We are all gifted with talents, passions and drives. Those attributes can become blessings or challenges. It is in our hands to decide which of the two they will be.

And thou shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

This is the lesson of the passion of Pinchas.

LeRefuat Yehudit bat Golda Yocheved and Yehudit bat Esther