At the end of this week’s parshah,1 Balak, we have the story of Zimri, the nasi (“leader”) of the tribe of Simeon, who together with others was tempted into having relationships with Midianite women. The Midianites put their daughters up to the task; even the king of Midian, Tzur, sent his own daughter, the princess Kozbi, to take part in the scheme.

What was the point? As the Jewish people made their way to the Holy Land, all the nations were afraid to engage them in battle. Not because the Jewish people had a powerful army (they certainly did not), but because G‑d was with them, granting them miraculous victories over very mighty nations. The people of Midian searched for a way to get Israel to do something to put them at odds with G‑d. They reasoned that their close connection to Him was because of their holiness and purity—and they were right. So how could Midian get the Israelites to betray G‑d and defile themselves? Their answer was this ploy, and to some extent, it worked.

The narrative continues that Zimri took Kozbi to be with him, and Pinchas killed them, saving the Jewish people.

Our sages2 tell us that Zimri brought Kozbi before Moses and asked him, “Is she allowed or forbidden? And if you say she is forbidden, then who permitted the daughter of Jethro [a Midianite] to you? The law was hidden from [Moses, who did not know how to respond].” Which law did he forget? The Midrash continues that Pinchas “saw what [Zimri] was doing and he remembered the law . . . , that one who does a carnal act with a non-Jewish woman, zealots take action against him.”

Why was Moses allowed to marry Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter? And why didn’t Moses answer Zimri and explain how that was different?

Moses married Zipporah before the receiving the Torah, when the laws governing our people were not yet put in place. When our ancestors stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, they became members of G‑d’s chosen nation, including Zipporah herself.3 Thus, she was permitted to him.

However, during the inauguration of the Mishkan, Moses played the role of Kohen, and according to some opinions, this put him in the status of Kohen for the rest of his life.4 A Kohen is not allowed to marry a convert, someone previously from a different nation. So it seems like Zimri had a good question.

Here is an answer.

While a Kohen can marry a widow, a Kohen Gadol (“High Priest”) cannot. But if he married a widow before becoming a Kohen Gadol, they are permitted to remain together because when they got married, they were allowed to marry.5

The same could be said for Moses. When he and Zipporah married—because it was permitted—now that he was a Kohen, they could stay together.

The Talmud tells us that the laws governing Jewish marriage were given to us while we were still in Egypt.6 Therefore, after the giving of the Torah, there was no need to redo marriages.

So according to all opinions, Moses’s marriage to Zipporah before the giving of the Torah was valid and held the weight of the Torah. Why didn’t he explain this to Zimri? Zimri wanted to blatantly take a gentile woman, and he knew that it was clearly forbidden.

There is a rule that when a Torah teacher is asked about a particular law while he himself is in a similar situation, he is not supposed to respond. He is not believed to impartially transmit the tradition since he is personally affected by that particular law.7 It is like a judge who recuses himself from a case because he has a stake in the outcome.

This is one reason that Moses wouldn’t respond.

Another reason is a practical one. When a person asks a question sincerely, you should try to give him an answer. However, sometimes a person asks a question insincerely and doesn’t really want your answer. He just wants to do what he wants, and engaging him in this discussion will only bring you down to his level. In this case, Zimri clearly knew the law; he didn’t really care for an answer.

The same is true when the evil inclination tries to engage you to do something wrong. He is insincere and doesn’t have your best interest in mind. Don’t even entertain the thought. He is a nudnik; don’t let him bring you down to his level. Instead, drag him with you to do something that G‑d wants, like learning Torah or doing another mitzvah.8

I remember when I first became a rabbi and started giving classes. Young and naive, I would engage every nudnik and try to answer their questions. It would leave me feeling empty, like I wasted my time. So I took a new approach. When I was asked that kind of question, I would respond with: “Good question!” Then I would invite them to learn. Most of the time, they would enjoy the Torah study and forget about their question. As it turned out, they weren’t nudniks at all, and many became lifelong friends.

May we have the strength to persevere and overcome the evil inclination, and get closer to G‑d. And may we soon merit to see the coming of Moshiach. The time has come.