Classic Questions

Why does verse 11 stress the lineage of Pinchas?

Rashi: Because the tribes ridiculed him, saying, "Have you seen the descendant of Puti [i.e., Yisro], whose mother's father fattened calves for idol worship, and yet he killed a leader of one of the tribes of Israel?" Therefore, scripture traces his lineage to Aharon.

Sifsei Chachamim: At the end of Parshas Balak, the Torah already stated that Pinchas was "the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest" (25:7), so why does this point need to be stressed again here? Rashi concluded that the Torah stressed Pinchas' lineage again in response to the ridicule he suffered.

Kli Yakar: The tribes ridiculed him because it was difficult to believe that a person whose own father married somebody who was not born Jewish should feel genuine indignation against Zimri for cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman.

Likewise, Pinchas' grandfather was an idolater, so it is difficult to believe that he was genuinely disgusted by the worship of Ba'al Pe'or.

Be'er Basadeh: The tribes felt that the Torah only sanctions a true zealot to execute a person such as Zimri. They found it difficult to believe that his intentions were pure.

The Rebbe's Teachings

The Lineage of Pinchas (v. 11)

On reading the opening of our parsha, Rashi was troubled: Why does the Torah stress again that Pinchas was "the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest," when this was already stated in verse 25:7 above (as Sifsei Chachamim writes)?

Rashi answers that "Scripture traces his lineage to Aharon" here (for a second time) "because the tribes ridiculed him, saying, 'Have you seen the descendant of Puti, whose mother's father fattened calves for idol worship, and yet he killed a leader of one of the tribes of Israel?'"

This prompts the following questions:

  1. Surely, "fattening cows" for the purposes of idol worship is a much less serious crime than the actual worship of idols, which is heresy. So, why did the tribes merely taunt Pinchas that his grandfather "fattened cows," when they could have stressed that Yisro had actually worshiped every idol in existence (Rashi to Shemos 18:11)?
  2. Why does Rashi stress that Yisro was Pinchas' "mother's father," and not simply his "grandfather"?
  3. Surely, Pinchas' act of vengeance was a personal affront only to the tribe of Shimon, whose leader Pinchas killed. We would presume, however, that the other tribes would be thankful for Pinchas' speedy action which stopped a brazen act of public indecency and halted the plague, saving many of their lives. On what basis did Rashi conclude that all the tribes ridiculed Pinchas?
  4. Did the tribes feel that Pinchas acted within the bounds of Jewish law or not? If they felt that Pinchas was legally justified in his actions because "If someone cohabits with a non-Jewish woman [in public], zealots have a right to strike him dead" (Rashi to 25:7), then what was their complaint? And if they felt that the above law only applies to a true zealot who feels righteous indignation, and Pinchas did not fall into this category [as Be'er Basadeh writes], then it follows that, in their opinion, Pinchas had no right to kill Zimri. Why then did they not criticize Pinchas for spilling innocent blood, rather than stressing the fact that his grandfather fattened cows for idol worship?

The Explanation

In his commentary to verse 6, at the end of Parshas Balak, Rashi explains why everybody was weeping, rather than taking action, at Zimri's brazenness: "The law was concealed from him [i.e., from Moshe]. So they all burst out weeping. At the incident of the Golden Calf, Moshe stood up against six hundred thousand people... yet here he seemed helpless! However, [this was orchestrated] so that Pinchas could come and take [the reward] that he deserved." Now, the tribes could not possibly have known, or even imagined, that God had concealed the law from Moshe in order to reward Pinchas. So when they saw that Moshe chose not to act and then Pinchas took action in Moshe's presence, they were outraged. How could Pinchas have been so disrespectful to Moshe and the other sages, who were surely aware of the law and yet had not taken action? Pinchas had disgraced Moshe and the other sages by acting as if he alone was willing to take vengeance for God!

The fact that Moshe did not have Pinchas sentenced by the court for murder ultimately proved that Pinchas had been legally justified in his actions. Nevertheless, the tribes felt that Pinchas had acted disrespectfully to Moshe, since they were unaware that the law had been concealed from him by God. This led them to feel contempt for Pinchas, as they desired to defend Moshe's honor—and clearly, Moshe's honor was something that concerned all of the tribes, and not just the tribe of Shimon.

To the tribes, the "disrespectful" nature of Pinchas' actions indicated that he had not acted entirely out of moral necessity, but that he had allowed undesirable aspects of his personality to become unleashed. Pinchas, they concluded, was not a pure moralist but somewhat of an opportunist. Jumping to kill Zimri, before Moshe had decided on the appropriate course of action, suggested that Pinchas had a sadistic disposition and simply reveled in the opportunity to spill blood as soon as the law permitted him to do so.

Where was the tribes' proof? Rashi explains their line of thinking: "Have you seen the descendant of Puti whose mother's father fattened calves for idol worship?" The tribes could not bring proof from the fact that Yisro (Puti) was an idol-worshiper in general, because idol-worship is an ideological mistake which is not inherited by one's children. Rather, they stressed that Yisro had a cruel, sadistic nature in that he fattened cows only in order to slaughter them (to idols), i.e., he was cruel to animals. And since a cruel disposition can be inherited, it follows—argued the tribes—that Pinchas' opportunist killing must be an expression of a tendency to cruelty that he inherited from his grandfather.

On the other hand, they argued, the person that Pinchas killed was an inherently kind person, a tribal leader, who cared for the needs of his people. In fact, Zimri did what he did in an (albeit misguided) attempt to prove that it was permissible to cohabit with a non-Jewish woman, so as to save his tribe from being punished for doing likewise (see Rashi to 25:6). This point served to further the tribes' argument—for who but a cruel, sadistic person would kill a leader who cared so much for his people? In fact, they argued, don't nice people just bring out the worst in nasty people, who cannot bear the fact that somebody could be genuinely good-natured?

Pinchas' Connection to Aharon

A serious flaw in the tribes' argument was that, in addition to being the grandson of Yisro, Pinchas was also Aharon's grandson. So how can we be sure that he inherited the negative qualities of Yisro and not the good traits of Aharon?

In answer to this point, the tribes stressed that Yisro was Pinchas' "mother's father." By nature, a boy's disposition is most similar to that of his mother, and a girl to that of her father—a fact which the reader will have gleaned from Rashi's comment on Bereishis 46:15: "The males are attributed to Leah whereas the females are attributed to Ya'akov, to teach you that if the woman emits seed first, she will give birth to a male, and if the man emits seed first, she will give birth to a female." Thus, the tribes wished to argue that Pinchas would have inherited the disposition of his maternal and not paternal grandfather.

Rashi thus explains, "Scripture traces his lineage to Aharon," indicating that Pinchas actually inherited the nature of Aharon, who "pursued peace and brought people who were fighting with each other to love each other" (Rashi on 20:29 above). And this was proof that Pinchas' intentions had indeed been pure.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 160ff.; Sichas Shabbos Parshas Pinchas 5725)