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Torah Studies: Balak

Torah Studies: Balak


Balak contains an episode where some Israelites have illicit relations with women of surrounding heathen tribes; and this is brought to a climax when Zimri sins openly with a Midianite woman in front of Moses and the people. Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron, though not himself a priest is seized with righteous anger and kills them both. For his zeal, G‑d’s punishment of the Israelites is stayed and Pinchas is granted the priesthood. The language of the narrative and the comments of the Talmud and Rashi make it clear that this was no ordinary sin; and Pinchas’ act was of a special order of virtue. The Rebbe explores these themes, culminating in an inquiry into the philosophy of sin, punishment and reward.

1. The Zealousness of Pinchas

“And when Pinchas… saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.”1

On this verse the Talmud2 (cited in Rash’s commentary) comments “He (Pinchas) saw the deed and remembered the law (about it). He said to Moses, ‘I have received a tradition from you: That he who has sexual relations with a heathen, zealous people may attack him.’”

Even though this law is not stated explicitly in the Bible, it can nonetheless be inferred from it, namely from the episode of Pinchas stabbing Zimri.3

And thus we can understand why the Torah tells us, “and he (Pinchas) stabbed both of them, the man of Israel, and the woman in her stomach,”4 on which Rashi comments, “He struck exactly at Zimri’s male and her female parts so that everyone could see that he had not killed them without just cause.” For apparently the Torah need not have mentioned where Pinchas stabbed the woman; nor did Pinchas need to show the Israelites that he had just cause for his action: For the Talmud tells us that Zimri was openly defiant of Moses.

The reason is that the Torah is alluding to the details of the law about punishing one who has relations with a heathen woman: That the zealous may punish the offender only at the time of his act, and not subsequently.

But why this allusive manner? Why does the Torah not state the law explicitly and directly, instead of weaving it into a narrative?

The Talmud5 tells us that “if someone comes to inquire about this particular law, we should not instruct him to act upon it,” and this would be impossible if the law were mentioned explicitly in the written Torah. For, because of the very nature of the written Law, that which is written is a continual instruction and command. Indeed, the oblique way in which Torah informs us about this law itself suggests that “we should not instruct” the one who inquires about it.

2. The Location of Guilt

There is a division of opinion amongst early legal commentators as to whether the law about one who sins with a heathen woman is a law about the offender, or about the zealous who are charged with inflicting punishment.

One side6 holds that the offender, since he is not to be executed by the Beth Din, is not himself condemned to death; it is rather that the zealous person iscommanded to kill him. And thus they maintain that had Zimri turned around and killed his assailant Pinchas, he would not be guilty of murder,7 since he himself was not sentenced to death and yet Pinchas was seeking to kill him, so that his act would have been a justified case of self-defense.

But the Talmud states: “Who is there that G‑d would pardon, and yet we should kill him?” From this it seems clear8 that Zimri (and in general, he who sins with a heathen woman) was himself liable to death. And it is merely that this death-sentence differs from all others in that its execution is:

(i) entrusted to the zealots (and not to the Beth Din) and;

(ii) at the very time of the offense (and not, as otherwise, subsequent to it).

There is evidence that Rashi holds this second view, for his commentary says that Pinchas thrust through the offenders in their male and female parts “so that they (the Israelites should all see that he did not kill them without just cause.”

Now, Rashi seems to be telling us that this act of Pinchas was to demonstrate that he had killed them at the moment of their sinning. For, if he had not done so, he would have killed them unlawfully. But if so, why does not Rashi say simply “so that all should see that he killed them according to the law”instead of his indirect, weaker phrase, “not without just cause?”

The explanation is that on certain occasions a Beth Din must exact exemplary punishment, where the offense in itself does not merit it but where a “fence must be made around the Torah”9 to prevent widespread abuse. And this was such a situation; where the Israelites en masse were beginning to stray into illicit relations with the Moabite women,10 and where Pinchas would have been justified in punishing Zimri even after his act. But had this been Pinchas’ reason, Zimri would have been killed “without just cause” (i.e., for the exemplary effect, rather than because of the intrinsic act). So that Rashi’s phrase “not without just cause” is intended to convey that Pinchas was not merely acting within the law, but that Zimri himself merited death; not as an example, but for his own sin. This indicates that Rashi is of the opinion that one who sins with a heathen woman is himself liable to death.

3. The Execution of Sentence

But we still have the difficulty that if the man deserves death, why should the sentence be executed (i) by the zealous only, and (ii) at the time of his act?

And this is complicated by the fact that the Talmud holds that this sin also bears the punishment of excision (karet);11 and his liability remains even after the act.

We are forced, therefore, to say that the sin has two aspects, one which deserves excision and remains after the act has been done; the other which lasts only during the act and which merits death at the hands of the zealous.

4. The Gravest of Sins

To understand this we must first consider what the Torah tells us about Pinchas: “Behold I give unto him My covenant of peace. And he and his seed after him shall have it; the covenant of priesthood, for ever; because he was zealous for his G‑d.”12

Now this presents two difficulties:

(i) It is apparent from the wording of the text (“because he was zealous for his G‑d,” “when he was zealous with my jealousy”13) that this sin (illicit relations with a heathen woman) is above all others relevant to G‑d. As Rashi comments “he (Pinchas) displayed the anger that I (G‑d) should have displayed.” Why this of all sins?

(ii) Because of his virtue, Pinchas was certainly entitled to a great reward, but not, surely, that of the priesthood, which was allocated to Aaron and his sons as a natural quality, to be transmitted eternally, just as time had been allocated into day and night (as Rashi comments in a previous Sidra).14 And, as Pinchas had not until that time been a priest,15 how could he suddenly become one?

The explanation is that of all sins, forbidden sexual unions are the most grave. Sexual union involves, as it were, the whole essence of a man,16 for from it a child may be born, with perhaps greater powers than his father.17 For, although the revealed faculties of the father are not so great, the sexual union draws from his essence. And on this level, his powers are greater. So he can beget a child with superior faculties to his own.

So that an illicit union involves a transference of a man’s very essence to the realm of the unlawful, unlike other transgressions which involve only certain of his capacities. And of these, union with a non-Jewish woman “involves a loss greater than all other sexual sins”18 for it alone transgresses the boundary which G‑d has set between Jews and all other peoples (a boundary also compared in the Midrash19 to that between light and darkness). The Jew who sins within his people remains a Jew, and his son, though illegitimate, is still a Jew and can rank higher than the High Priest in wisdom and the respect which attaches to it.20 But he who sins with a non-Jewish woman begets offspring who are not Jewish, and all his powers and the essence of his soul are used for this.

It is even worse than this, in fact. For birth is a miraculous event; as the Talmud says,21 “three partners produce a man: His mother, his father, and G‑d who gives him his soul.” Even as aphysical process, birth is manifestly miraculous. And for this open disclosure of G‑d’s presence to be turned to sin is something in which we can understand the phrase, that Pinchas “was jealous for his G‑d.”

But how, if the division between the nations and Israel is one of G‑d’s laws of nature, is it possible for it to be transgressed? The answer is that man’s free will makes him, as it were, like G‑d in being able to choose his own path (“Behold man is become like one of us”22), even where it crosses the natural boundaries which G‑d has set, just as G‑d Himself is not bound by any natural law at all.

And, since reward is given “measure for measure,” and Pinchas had atoned for this crossing of G‑d’s boundaries, so he was rewarded by the priesthood: He himself crossed the boundary that G‑d had set between priest and people.

5. The Endurance of Guilt

Now we can understand why guilt attaches to this forbidden union only at the time of the act. In all other sins, the Jew’s sanctity remains, even though embedded in the realm of the forbidden. This is why it can be rectified by subsequent repentance. Even in illicit unions amongst Jews, the offspring, though irrevocably illegitimate, is still holy: A member of the Jewish people. So, until the repentance, the guilt remains (holiness is still trapped in forbidden domains). But union with a heathen woman severs the offender from his sanctity: So the guilt ceases with the act. Or to put it more precisely:

(i) as a forbidden act, involving a man’s human capacities, it shares the lasting guilt of other sins, and bears the punishment of excision.

(ii) as the unique act of transferring the most Divine and essential power to unholiness, it carries the sentence of death, and its guilt lasts no longer than the act. This is why punishment for this aspect must be executed at that very moment, or not at all.

6. The Task and Reward of the Zealous

Why though must death be at the hands of the zealous and not the Beth Din? The freedom of choice which man is given through the Torah, is the choice between good and evil, life and death.23 But not the power to turn good into evil or evil into good. This is something which transcends Torah and which a Jew has in his ability, by repentance, to turn (intentional) sins into merits; or conversely, as in the case of Zimri, to turn the most holy into the most profane by forbidden union.

The punishment must match the crime; and since Zimri’s was a misuse of a power higher than Torah, it could not be punished by the representatives of Torah: The Beth Din; but had to be executed by the person whose attachment to G‑d transcended Torah: The zealous Pinchas.

The Torah sets boundaries, good and evil, permitted and forbidden, Israel and the nations. But the Jew has resources in his soul to cross the boundaries, for good or for bad, and to rescue holiness from the lowest reaches of the profane.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII pp. 150-158)

Sanhedrin, 82a, also Bamidbar Rabbah, 20:25.
Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah, 12:4.
Sanhedrin, Ibid.
Ran, Sanhedrin, Ibid.
Sanhedrin, 82b.
As is the opinion of Ramban, in Sefer Hamitzvot, Shoresh 3.
Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin, 24:4; Sanhedrin, 46a.
Sanhedrin, 82a, based on Malachi 2:11-12. Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah, 12:6.
Ibid., v. 11.
Cf. Reishit Chochmah, Shaar Hakedushah, chs. 11:16.
Cf. Shavuot, 48a; Chullin, 49b, 63a.
Rambam, Hilchot Issurei Biah, 12:7.
Bamidbar Rabbah, 18. Cf. Shemot Rabbah, 36:1.
Horiot, 13a.
Kiddushin, 30b.
Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, beg. of ch. 5. Bereishit 5:22.
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Anonymous wisc July 7, 2011

elsewhere Elsewhere i read about Zimri the Prince that he purposefully took the harlot so that he could protect his followers from the wrath of the mob. Pinchas is no hero in all of this. He is a hot head. Who in his right mind thrusts a spear through a copulating couple to show how smart he is to kill two birds with one stone ? Did Pinchas think that he was more dialed into Hashem ? That's arrogance. We see in this day and age how zealots manipulate their followersby invoking the name of a god. Bypassing the Beit Din looks like a coverup. And if you want to factor in that Pinchas was doing G-d's Will, then where is the free will ? Maybe Pinchas had ulterior motives. Wasn't he given some high up position ? If so, and if he accepted the high position, the whole story begins to smell. Zimri had a noble purpose in his misdeed. He sacrificed himself mesirat nefesh. Pinchas had no clue.

Good luck with your interpretation. Reply

Judith olam hazeh July 6, 2011

This is a doozie similar to sharia law where heinous acts are committed in the name of Allah to justify one's obeisance to Allah. Judaism does not condone this kind of extremism anymore, does it. Basically, Pinchas is acting as a "vigilanty", because the Beth Din is looking the other way while Pinchas carries out murders. Many, many blacks were lynched, tortured, slaughtered in the name of self-righteous 'religious' piety as well. Transcending the Torah? That sounds like a convenient concept to get around the sticky issues of how to deal with illicit relations. Why not take the kinder view and require the gentile to convert or require the Jew to leave the tribe? The Torah is extremely violent about sexual relations it considers to be antithetical to Gd's law. Where in Halacha are we told to turn away from such practices since we don't BH practice this now? Reply

Menachem Posner for June 28, 2010

re: becoming unholy You ask a very good question. Why is the child’s identity determined only by the mother? Why is the father’s Jewishness not a factor?

Jewish identity is not a status conferred as a reward for good behavior or as a punishment for having sinned. Rather it is the core identity of the Jew. So what makes the child of a Jewish mother Jewish?

I once heard a fascinating insight into this by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He explained that the mother carries the child for nine months. The blood from the placenta that she produced flows through his veins and her nutrients nourish his body and grow his brain. And it does not stop there. After the baby is born, the baby neither eats nor drinks. His very life comes directly from his mother. After such an intense, personal investment and connection, it is only natural for the baby’s identity to be the same as the mother who carried him and brought him into this world.

Alternatively, you may enjoy reading this article on the subject: Why Is Jewishness Matrilineal? Reply

Norman Siller Orlando, fl June 24, 2010

becoming unholy am I correct in assuming the same for a jewish woman? she can be killed @ time of act? But what if she is not? the sages delared a child jewish if the mother is jewish. yet not if the father is. I understand in cases where there is a question of who the father is, so the child is not considered jewish, but still why should 1 be ok & not the other. both are from an unholy act! Yet G-d as the 3rd partner brought it into being. so why one way jewish child & not the other. Reply

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