The beginning of the Sidra describes G‑d’s reward to Pinchas for his zealousness in avenging Zimri’s insolence in bringing a heathen woman into the camp of the Israelites. Rashi, in his commentary, seems to be troubled by an apparently unnecessary repetition of the genealogy of Pinchas, which states that he was the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the priest. This has already been stated only a few verses earlier, and Rashi concludes that its purpose here, in our Sidra, is not simply to inform us of Pinchas’ ancestry, but to defend him from a criticism that the Israelites were urging against him, that he was the grandson of Jethro, who had once been an idol-worshipper, and that he had inherited some of Jethro’s pagan inclinations. The details of Rashi’s account, however, raise a number of difficulties, which are investigated in the Sicha. Its central theme is the concept of zealousness itself. Is religious zeal to be encouraged or criticized? Is it the result of pride and ostentation or genuine devotion? What should be our response when we suspect someone’s motives for his religious behavior? The Sicha ends by confronting these difficult and yet vitally important questions.

1. The Complaint of the Tribes

“And the L-rd spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, has turned My wrath away.”

Rashi, commenting on this genealogy, says: “Because the tribes spoke disparagingly of him, (saying) ‘Have you seen this grandson of Puti the father of whose mother used to fatten calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and he dared to slay a prince of one of Israel’s tribes!’ Therefore, the Torah comes and connects his genealogy with Aaron.” This malicious talk of the Israelites was based on the fact that Pinchas’ father, Elazar, had married a daughter of Putiel, who is identified with Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, who at one time had been an idol-worshipper.

Now what is there in the simple statement of Pinchas’ ancestry to suggest to Rashi this elaborate explanation? The answer is that we had already been told, only a few verses previously,1 who Pinchas’ father and grandfather were. Since there is no unnecessary repetition in the Torah, there must be some further reason for restating it here. Therefore Rashi is forced to conclude that Pinchas was being criticized in terms of his ancestry (his descent from Jethro) and that the Torah intends to emphasize the distinction of his family tree (his descent from Aaron).

Nonetheless, there are still some features of Rashi’s explanation that need understanding.

Granted, for example, that Pinchas was being criticized, how does Rashi infer that “the tribes” in general were a party to the complaint? Surely it is more likely that it was only the tribe of Simeon, whose prince, Zimri, Pinchas had killed. Indeed the other tribes had been severely distressed by Zimri’s act of bringing a Midianite woman into the camp; as Rashi says,2 “they all burst out weeping” at that moment. And as a result of Pinchas’ zealousness, they all benefited, because “the pestilence was restrained from the children of Israel.”3 They had every reason to praise him. Why then does Rashi say they criticized him?

Secondly, their criticism was based on the fact that Jethro was his maternal grandfather. Now according to the Midrash4 and to Rashi5 himself Jethro’s idolatry was such that “he left no idol unworshipped by him.” The tribes therefore had this comprehensive indictment available to them. Why did they seize only on the fact that he had “fattened calves” for idolatrous sacrifice?

Thirdly, the Biblical verse connects Pinchas’ lineage to “Elazar the son of Aaron the priest.” But Rashi says only, “Torah comes and connects his genealogy with Aaron.” Why does he omit mention of Aaron’s priesthood, and of Elazar who was at that time High Priest of Israel?

Finally, the whole purpose of the tribes’ disparaging remarks about Pinchas’ ancestry is unclear. The object of their scorn was Pinchas, himself, for having killed Zimri for bringing a heathen woman into the camp. Now either they did not know the law that “he who has intercourse with a heathen woman, zealous people may attack him,” in which case they should have accused Pinchas of murder; or, they thought that Pinchas did not come into the category of “zealous people,” in which case they should have accused him of having ulterior motives for his act. The only alternative is that they knew both the law and the fact that Pinchas was zealous,6 and if this were true, they should have had no grounds for complaint whatever. So, in any case, reference to Jethro, his maternal grandfather, seems quite irrelevant to the issue at hand.

2. The Motive of the Israelites

The answer to these difficulties lies in the realization that the tribes, in disparaging Pinchas, were seeking to defend the honor of Israel and of Moses.

Zimri had brought the Midianite woman into the camp “before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel.” And of all these people, only Pinchas had the zeal to rise and avenge this profanation of G‑d. Certainly the rest of the Israelites knew the law as well as Pinchas, for it had been transmitted to “the whole people” together.7 And without a doubt, Moses knew it, because Pinchas said to him, “I have received it as a tradition from you.”8 Pinchas’ solitary response had brought shame upon Israel and upon Moses.

This is why they tried to cast doubt on the purity of Pinchas’ motives. What they did was to accuse him of a streak of cruelty, inherited from his grandfather Jethro, as contributing a share in his zealous act. This is why they seized on Jethro’s practice of fattening calves for sacrifice, for it is the supreme cruelty to appear to be acting for someone’s benefit—feeding him well—only for the sake of the ultimate slaughter.9 The Israelites’ defense was this: Why did only Pinchas rise and take vengeance into his hands. Because he was animated also by cruelty, not only by conscience. We were not so cruel. Therefore we hesitated.

And this is why Rashi includes all the tribes in the disparagement. Only the tribe of Simeon were concerned to defend Zimri’s honor, but all the tribes were concerned to defend the honor of Moses and of the Jewish People.

3. The Motive of Pinchas

Now we can see the precise point of the Torah at this stage repeating the genealogy of Pinchas, that he was the “son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest.” It is to show that in his act, Pinchas was not the “grandson of Jethro” but only the “grandson of Aaron”: In other words that he was not driven at all by cruelty but only by a burning religious zeal. And Rashi tacitly points out to us that in this phrase, the crucial words are “the son of Aaron.” The emphasis of the Torah is not simply that Pinchas was the son of Elazar, who was first the deputy High Priest, and then after Aaron’s death the High Priest himself. Nor is it that Pinchas was the grandson of “Aaron the priest.” Rather, the emphasis is on Aaron’s character aside from his priesthood, that he “pursued peace and caused love to descend between contending parties.”10 Where contention existed between the Israelites and G‑d, Pinchas sought to replace it with love, as G‑d says, “Pinchas… has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel.’’11 This was the underlying nature of Pinchas’ zealousness—a deep love of peace that he had inherited from Aaron, and a desire to remove the cause of the bitterness between G‑d and His people.

4. Ulterior and Interior Motives

In Rashi we find more than simply a literal commentary to the verses of the Torah. We find profound and general truths that have a bearing on our lives. From his understanding of this particular episode of Pinchas, we learn that when one sees a man engaged in a religious act, even though we seem to have overwhelming evidence that he is doing so for some ulterior motive, it is forbidden for us to belittle him.

Even if it is in fact true that he has ulterior motives, there is a categorical statement in the Talmud12 that “a man should always be preoccupied with the Torah and the commandments, even if not for its own sake, for in the course of acting for some other end he will come to do it for its own sake.” The true motive will eventually displace the false one.

Indeed, the Hebrew original of this statement reads, not “in the course of” but “in the midst of.”13 And the deep implication is that the right motive will be found “in the midst” of the wrong one: That although a Jew may formulate ulterior motives in his mind for doing G‑d’s will, subconsciously, in the true depths of his being, he seeks to keep to the Torah for its own sake alone.

Furthermore, the obligation of a Jew, when he sees another doing the right act for the wrong reason, is not to dissuade him from doing the act at all; but to help him towards a true understanding of its purpose and to bring him more quickly to the state where he does G‑d’s will for its own sake.

This is so even when there is in reality an ulterior motive. But in fact it is never given to us to know with certainty the motives of someone else. The tribes had powerful grounds for suspecting Pinchas’ motives; but G‑d who “sees into the heart,”14 testified that they were wrong.

5. Modesty and Pride

Someone who follows the example of the tribes may fall into a deeper error, the error of self-deception. For when someone prevents someone else from doing something which in itself is good, merely because his motives were suspect, the first person’s motives may also be suspect. He may reason thus: Since I am by nature modest and self-effacing, I cannot tolerate pride, and therefore when I see someone learning Torah with conspicuous passion, or performing the commandments beyond the requirements of the Torah, which appears ostentatious, I cannot pass it by in silence. But in fact, he is wrong and the person he criticizes is right. The tribes criticized Pinchas in their wish to exonerate themselves and Moses; but it is of Pinchas that G‑d says “he was zealous with My jealousy.” Indeed, there may be an element of pride in this very show of modesty. A true response to seeing someone learning with passion and fulfilling the commandments lavishly would be to be roused to a similar ardor oneself.15 If instead one is critical, it is almost as if one could not bear the sight of someone more virtuous than oneself. Pirkei Avot says:16 “Judge all men in the scale of merit.” When one has a feeling towards another person which does not accord with this maxim, then it is a feeling whose source does not lie in holiness and truth.

6. The Reward of the Zealous

The episode of Pinchas took place while a pestilence afflicted the Israelites. And, though he was not, like Moses, a leader of his generation, nor was he even (as yet) a priest, nonetheless by his action the pestilence was stilled, and peace was restored between the Jews and G‑d: “Behold I give him My covenant of peace.”

Thus, even at a time of spiritual affliction, when one sees a Jew zealous in his service of G‑d, even a Jew with no claims to leadership or distinction, one must not dissuade or discourage him. For he, like Pinchas, is the bringer of true peace between G‑d and His people, the peace which is the opposite of separation and exile. He is the harbinger of the Messianic Age,17 who “shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers’’18 in the ultimate and everlasting peace.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII, pp. 160-170.)