…I remember one Sunday morning on a subway in New York.

People were sitting quietly—some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then, suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed. The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people's papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. (It was easy to see that everyone on the subway felt irritated, too.) So, finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, "Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn't control them a little more?"

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, "Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either…"

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment?

— Stephan Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

A Genetic Transmission

"A Jewish prince, a Moabite princess, and a spear-carrying enthusiast were sitting in a tent…"

Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

It was bad alright; but no joke.

Here's the background:

A Jewish prince, a Midianite princess, and a spear-carrying enthusiast were sitting in a tent…Men of Israel had begun to act promiscuously with women of Moab and Midian. Moreover, the men were made to serve Moabite idols before serving their lust. That made G‑d unhappy, and a plague descended upon Israel, killing thousands.

And while that was happening, a Jewish tribal leader was brewing a storm. He made public his plan to cohabit with a Midianite woman, the daughter of a prominent chieftain, no less!

Not good at all. Something had to happen.

Back at the tent.

(What followed was edited to fit your screen.)

Suffice it to say, Phinehas crashed the party.

And with it, the plague.

You Be the Judge

You now have the facts. But not the motive.

For while the act was necessary, one wonders what drove it: bloodlust or a desire to restore G‑d's honor?

The query is not trumped-up, for the keen Biblicist will know that Phinehas' maternal grandfather was Jethro. A man who cruelly fattened his animals before sacrificing them to the deities he courted. It would seem, then, that cruelty ran thick in Phinehas' genes. Genes that may well have volunteered their services given a license to kill.

And all in the name of G‑d.

Before rendering Phinehas' character completely assassinated, here's a final stab.

If this was truly about making good G‑d's honor, as the naïve voice of idealism in me vigorously argues, where was Moses at so critical a time? G‑d's dignity was on the line!

Surely Phinehas wasn't more devoted to G‑d than Moses!

If you're nodding your head in sensible agreement, you're in good company.

"The tribes humiliated Phinehas, saying, 'Did you see this son of Puti [Jethro]? His mother's father fattened calves for idolatry, and he killed the prince of a Tribe of Israel!'"

If, however, the voice of childish optimism in you still grates on your sense of reason in an effort to resurrect Phinehas' integrity, you are in even better company.

"G‑d spoke to Moses saying: Phinehas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron…"

In telling our story, G‑d made a point of introducing Phinehas not by his maternal grandfather Jethro (unkindly rumored to be unkind1), but by his paternal grandfather Aaron, the embodiment of love and peace.

This He did in order to introduce us to the predominant gene in Phinehas, and thus to better acquaint us with his motives.

What only G‑d could have known, and what the tribes should only have thought, was that Phinehas had acted out of compassion for his dying brothers, and devotion towards his living G‑d, reflecting the attributes of his kind and saintly grandfather, Aaron the Priest.

Phinehas acted out of compassion for his dying brothers, and devotion towards his living G‑dIn other words, the Torah uncharacteristically splurges words in our verse (having identified Phinehas' ancestry elsewhere), in order to impress upon us the importance of giving people the benefit of doubt, instead of doubting their benefit.

What's in It for Me?

We live in an age where children are often indoctrinated with suspicion. They're taught that in relationships, trusting equals vice, not virtue. Along the way they pick up that optimism is outdated and naïve. In fact, it has been noted that many children turn to sarcasm for a sense of humor.

Lessons in skepticism disguised as realism are graciously provided by many current media outlets free of charge. Criticizing politicians, statesmen, and religious leaders is in vogue. In the prevailing courtroom of public opinion, people are judged guilty until proven innocent.

At least that's what the cynics say…

It's not too late to turn the tide, to restore the qualities most beautiful in human beings: hope, faith, and the favorable judgment of others.2