Vengeance and Compassion
פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן השיב את חמתי מעל בני ישראל בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם ולא כליתי את בני ישראל בקנאתי. לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את בריתי שלום. והיתה לו ולזרעו אחריו ברית כהנת עולם תחת אשר קנא לאלהיו ויכפר על בני ישראל.
Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen repelled My wrath from Bnei Yisrael, by exacting vengeance among them on My behalf, thus preventing Me from destroying Bnei Yisrael in My vengeance. Therefore, I say, behold, I grant him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him, and for his descendants after him, as a covenant of priesthood forever, as a reward for being vengeful for his G-d, and atoning for Bnei Yisrael.
The Gemara tells us that the angels wanted to punish Pinchas for killing Zimri, but Hashem restrained them. “Leave him be,” He said. “He is an avenger, son of an avenger (descended of Levi, who avenged Dina’s disgrace); a repeller of wrath, son of a repeller of wrath (descended of Aharon, who stopped the plague after Korach’s revolt).”
Why did the angels want to punish him? Were they not aware of the halacha, that if a Jewish man sins with a gentile woman, a vengeful person may slay him? In answer to this question, it seems that permission is granted to exact vengeance on Hashem’s behalf, only if one’s intentions are perfectly noble, and his heart is not tainted by the slightest hint of anger. Vengeance on behalf of Hashem must be inspired by compassion and true concern for the benefit of the Jewish people. Rashi explains the word kanai (vengeful person) to mean: בני אדם כשרין המתקנאין קנאתו של מקום – “Proper people, who are vengeful on behalf of Hashem.” He must first excel in proper character traits, before he can claim vengeance for Hashem.
Pinchas had two intentions when he struck down Zimri. Firstly, his heart burned with jealousy on behalf of Hashem. Secondly, his heart was also filled with compassion for Bnei Yisrael, and the desire to repel Hashem’s anger, that He not punish them for their sins. Hashem testified that this was indeed his intention, “Pinchas… repelled My wrath from Bnei Yisrael… thus preventing Me from destroying Bnei Yisrael in My vengeance.”
The Gemara tells us that when Pinchas saw Zimri’s flagrant sin, he asked Moshe Rabbeinu, “When you descended from Har Sinai, did you not say that if a Jewish man sins with a gentile woman kanaim may strike him?”
“As a reward for remembering this ruling, you shall be the emissary to fulfill it,” Moshe told him.
The Ran, in his commentary on this Gemara, asks how Moshe could have instructed Pinchas to kill Zimri. The rule is that a kanai may strike a sinner of his own volition, but if he asks Beis Din for instruction, they should not tell him to do so. The Ran explains that Pinchas did not ask Moshe for permission. He simply quoted the halacha before Moshe. Moshe then told him, “If you have come to open a court case against him, you have achieved nothing. If you have come to search for a kanai to strike him, then you should strike him yourself, since there is no one worthier than you.”
In a deeper sense, we can explain that Pinchas did not come to Moshe’s Beis Din to clarify the halacha. He came to those who had perfected their own middos, and were the best possible judges of human character, to ask them if he was worthy to claim the mantle of a proper kanai, and strike down Zimri for his sin. When Moshe told him that he was indeed worthy, he first focused his thoughts to achieve true purity of intent, and only then struck down Zimri. He prayed for Hashem’s assistance that his act of vengeance be truly noble, such that it would be accepted favorably in Heaven.
The angels are unable to gaze into the innermost recesses of the heart. They cannot discern if a person’s intentions are truly noble. Therefore, they wished to punish Pinchas for what they viewed as a lowly act of murder. Hashem, Who alone is aware of a person’s true intentions, restrained them. He testified on Pinchas’s behalf that he was not only an “avenger, son of an avenger”, but also “a repeller of wrath, son of a repeller of wrath.” It was with a heart full of compassion for the Jewish people, that he exacted Hashem’s vengeance.
With this we can better understand the Gemara:
התחילו שבטים מבזין אותו ראיתם בן פוטי זה שפיטם אבי אמו עגלים לעבודה זרה והרג נשיא שבט מישראל בא הכתוב ויחסו פנחס בן אלעזר בן אהרן הכהן.
The Tribes degraded Pinchas, saying, “Have you seen this son of ‘Puti,’ whose maternal grandfather fattened (pitem) calves for idolatry? He killed a leader of a Tribe of Israel.” To counter this accusation, the verse cites his paternal lineage, “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon.”
Were the tribes such fools that they would degrade Pinchas for the sins of his ancestors, which were no fault of his own? What relevance was there between the sins of his ancestors, and his zealous slaying of Zimri?
The Gemara tell us that if a person breaks something in his anger, it is considered as if he has worshipped idols. The Zohar also equates anger to idolatry. Therefore, the Tribes suspected that Pinchas’s act of vengeance was motivated by the ignoble trait of anger, which he had inherited from his idolatrous forefathers.
To counter this accusation, the verse cites his lineage from Aharon HaKohen, who “loved peace and pursued peace, loved others, and drew them close to the Torah.” Hashem testified on his behalf, that his vengeance was inspired not by anger, but by the pursuit of love and peace. For this reason, he received the most appropriate reward, as the Midrash states:
אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש פינחס הוא אליהו. אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא, אתה נתת שלום בין ישראל וביני בעולם הזה, אף לעתיד לבא אתה הוא שעתיד ליתן שלום ביני לבין בני שנאמר “הנה אנכי שולח לכם את אליה הנביא לפני בוא יום ה’ וגו’ והשיב לב אבות על בנים.”
Rebbe Shimon ben Lakish said that Pinchas was in fact Eliyahu (HaNavi). HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to him, “You made peace between Bnei Yisrael and Myself in this world. So too, in the future, you will be the one to make peace between Myself and My children,” as the verse states, “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu HaNavi, before the coming of the Day of Hashem… and He will return the hearts of the fathers to the sons.”
There is a perplexing Gemara in Maseches Berachos:
אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא, אי משום תנויי בשני דרב יהודה כולי תנויי בנזיקין הוה ואנן קא מתנינן שיתא סדרי, וכי הוה מטי רב יהודה בעוקצין האשה שכובשת ירק בקדרה ואמרי לה זיתים שכבשן בטרפיהן טהורים אמר הויות דרב ושמואל קא חזינא הכא ואנן קא מתנינן בעוקצין תליסר מתיבתא, ואילו רב יהודה כי הוה שליף חד מסאניה אתי מטרא ואנן קא מצערינן נפשין ומצוח קא צוחינן ולית דמשגח בן. אמר ליה קמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם אנן לא מסרינן נפשין אקדושת השם. כי הא דרב אדא בר אהבה חזייה לההיא כותית דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא סבר דבת ישראל היא קם קרעיה מינה אגלאי מילתא דכותית היא שיימוה בארבע מאה זוזי. אמר לה מה שמך אמרה ליה מתון אמר לה מתון מתון ארבע מאה זוזי שויא.
Rav Papa asked Abaye, “Why were miracles performed for previous generations, but they are not performed for us? Is it because they learned more Torah than we do? In the time of Rav Yehuda, they studied only the Order of Nezikin, while we study all six Orders. When Rav Yehuda studied the Tractate of Uktzin, and reached the subject of olives that were soaked with their branches, which are pure, he could only say, ‘This is as difficult as all the questions of Rav and Shmuel,’ while we can explain this subject in thirteen different ways. Yet, when Rav Yehuda removed only one shoe (to begin a day of fasting and prayer for rain), rain would immediately begin to fall; while we afflict ourselves greatly, and cry out in prayer, but we are ignored.
Abaye explained to him, “In previous generations, they would sacrifice to sanctify Hashem’s Name. We do not sacrifice to sanctify Hashem’s Name. For example, Rav Ada bar Ahava once saw a gentile woman wearing an inappropriate cloak in the market place. He thought she was Jewish and tore off her cloak. Then he found out that she was a gentile, and was forced to pay her four hundred zuz for disgracing her.”
“What is your name?” he asked her.
“Matun,” she said.
“Matun, Matun is worth four hundred zuz,” he said. (Rashi – matun also means two hundred in Aramaic, two times which is four hundred, the price he was forced to pay. Alternatively, matun also means “hesitate”. Had he hesitated before tearing off her cloak, he would have realized she was a gentile and would not have been fined.)
Why did Rav Ada ask her name? Furthermore, what relevance does this have to our Gemara, which cites this incident only to demonstrate how much Rav Ada was willing to sacrifice to ensure that Jewish women dressed properly?
The Gemara cited this conclusion to the story to demonstrate Rav Ada’s motives in tearing off her cloak. One might have thought that he was motivated by an impetuous, irritable temperament, prone to vent his anger at the slightest offence. How can we see that his actions were motivated by true concern for the honor of Heaven, and the honor of the Jewish people, such that he was willing to sacrifice such a fortune for these ideals?
We see this from his sensitivity and consideration for the feelings of the gentile woman he had wronged. He paid her in full to appease her for the offense, and asked her name, as a courteous gesture of reconciliation. From here we see that he was a thoughtful and kind person, and was not naturally inclined towards anger. Therefore, we must conclude that when he tore off her cloak, his intention was truly to sanctify Hashem’s Name.
Based on this principle, we can also explain the following Gemara:
כשחלה רבי יוסי בן קיסמא הלך רבי חנינא בן תרדיון לבקרו. אמר לו חנינא אחי אי אתה יודע שאומה זו מן השמים המליכוה שהחריבה את ביתו ושרפה את היכלו והרגה את חסידיו ואבדה את טוביו ועדיין היא קיימת ואני שמעתי עליך שאתה יושב ועוסק בתורה [ומקהיל קהלות ברבים] וספר מונח לך בחיקך. אמר לו מן השמים ירחמו. אמר לו אני אומר לך דברים של טעם ואתה אומר לי מן השמים ירחמו תמה אני אם לא ישרפו אותך ואת ספר תורה באש. אמר לו רבי מה אני לחיי העולם הבא. אמר לו כלום מעשה בא לידך. אמר לו מעות של פורים נתחלפו לי במעות של צדקה וחלקתים לעניים. אמר לו אם כן מחלקך יהי חלקי ומגורלך יהי גורלי.
When Rebbe Yossi ben Kisma fell ill, Rebbe Chanina ben Teradyon went to visit him. (Rebbe Yossi) said to him, “Chanina, my brother. Do you not know that this nation (Rome) has been granted kingship by Heaven? It has destroyed Hashem’s House, burned His sanctuary, killed His pious, eradicated the best of His servants, and it still stands strong. I have heard that you sit and toil in Torah, and gather public audiences (to teach Torah), holding a Sefer Torah on your lap (Rashi – thus violating the Roman decree against Torah study).”
“Heaven will show mercy,” answer Rebbe Chanina.
“I offer you words of reason, and you can only answer ‘Heaven will show mercy?’” asked Rebbe Yossi. “I would be surprised if they do not burn you together with the Sefer Torah.”
“Rebbe, will I merit the life of the World to Come?” asked Rebbe Chanina.
“Did you do any good deeds?” asked Rebbe Yossi.
“Money I had set aside for my Purim meal got mixed together with tzedaka money, and I distributed it all to the poor,” said Rebbe Chanina.
“If so, may my portion by as yours,” said Rebbe Yossi.
Rebbe Chanina sacrificed his life to teach Torah to the Jewish people. Was this not enough of a merit to assure him a place of great honor in the World to Come? Why did Rebbe Yossi look for the additional merit of giving his Purim meal money to the poor?
Rebbe Chanina’s open defiance of the Roman decree could have been interpreted as a rash, hotheaded act of rebellion, which stemmed from a personality predisposed to anger. Such a personality is often marked by a disregard for human life. Therefore, Rebbe Yossi was not yet convinced that Rebbe Chanina was assured of a place in the World to Come. However, when he saw that Rebbe Chanina was so sensitive to the needs of the poor, that he gave them the money he had set aside for his own Purim meal, Rebbe Yossi realized the great love of mankind that permeated Rebbe Chanina’s soul. Rebbe Yossi then understood that Rebbe Chanina’s sacrifice was motivated by a sincere concern for the honor of Heaven.
As part of Pinchas’s reward, he was granted the privilege of serving as a Kohen. The Gemara presents a debate whether the Kohanim in the Beis HaMikdash served as emissaries of Hashem or emissaries of Bnei Yisrael. Tosefos states that to a certain extent both opinions are correct.
Pinchas fulfilled both roles of the Kohen. He served as Hashem’s emissary, by exacting vengeance on His behalf, and as the emissary of the Jewish people, by repelling Hashem’s wrath from upon us.
In the writings of our Sages, we find illustrations of both roles. If a person kills someone unintentionally, he is exiled to a city of refuge (ir hamiklat), where he must remain until the Kohen Gadol dies. The Gemara understood from here that the Kohen Gadol was to some degree responsible for the death, since he should have prayed to prevent it. From here we see the role of the Kohen to pray on behalf of the Jewish people, and protect us from such calamities.
Elsewhere, we find that when the Kohen Gadol prepared for Yom Kippur, he was shown the cow and sheep offerings that he would sacrifice on Yom Kippur, but he was not shown the goat offering. The Gemara explains that he would thereby be reminded of the sins of Bnei Yisrael, for which the goat atones, and be disheartened by them. However, he was shown the cow offering, which atones for the sins of the Kohanim. Rather than be disheartened by these sins, he would make every effort to correct them. Since the Kohanim were members of his extended family, he was able to influence them to mend their ways.
From here we see the role of the Kohen to act on behalf of Hashem, by encouraging others to serve Him as they should. He purifies and sanctifies the Jewish people, inspiring us to return in teshuva. Thereby, we are made worthy of the holiness that descends from Above.
Pinchas became Eliyahu HaNavi, and was granted eternal life. He still continues these noble efforts, as our emissary and the emissary of Hashem, to strengthen the bond between Bnei Yisrael and our Father in Heaven, thus bringing peace and protection upon us all.
 Bamidbar 25:11-13
 Sanhedrin 82b
 Sanhedrin 82a
 Sanhedrin 82b
 Shabbos 105b
 Bereishis 27b
 Pirkei Avos 1:12
 Malachi 3:23; Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 771, s.v. Amar Rebbe Shimon
 Berachos 20a
 Avoda Zara 18a
 Tosefos, Kiddushin 23b, s.v. D’Amar Rav Huna
 Makkos 11a
 Yoma 18a