Art by Menachem Halberstadt

By Yehudis golshevsky

There’s a famous story brought down about the Baal Shem Tov hakadosh, that when he once saw a Jew desecrate the Shabbos with his own eyes he tried to consider in what way he was guilty of a similar sin. “It’s not possible that one can see a flaw within another, the sin of another, without it being in some way a reflection of some similar flaw within oneself. When was I mechalel Shabbos?” After much contemplation he remembered that, in the past, he had stood by and failed to protest when he saw a fellow Jew insult a Torah scholar. Since a talmid chochom is compared to the holiness of Shabbos, the Baal Shem Tov realized that this was his personal equivalent of the flaw of Shabbos desecration. It’s only after seeing the parallel sin acted out before him that he was able to do the teshuvah that his own level required. The shock of witnessing chillul Shabbos was the force that pushed him to examine his own behavior that needed correction.

This week’s parshah begins with the Divine reward given to Pinchas for having intervened and “drawn back My fury against the Jewish people,” giving them a new lease on life. The incident that sparked Pinchas’ zealous act occurs at the end of Parshas Balak, and is described very briefly: “Just then one of the children of Israel came and brought a Midianite woman over to his brothers, in the sight of Moses and of the whole community of Israel who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Bamidbar 25:6) Why weeping? The Targum Yonason comments that they were “…crying and reciting Shema…” Did they expect that kriyas Shema would help to stop Zimri’s illicit behavior? Were they trying to turn aside Hashem’s anger at this blatant act of defiance?
The Nesivos Sholom, zt”l, ties this teaching back to our story of the Baal Shem Tov. When a prince among the Jewish people sins publicly, it’s understood that in some way it must be a reflection of a flaw within the Jewish people themselves. When the verse tells us that Zimri brought Kozvi within sight “of Moses and the whole community,” it means that every single witness knew that they were in some way or another implicated in that crime. If we see it as a sin, then it’s a mirror in which we see ourselves—that’s the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching. So the Jewish people who witnessed the incident cried at the Mishkan and recited Shema—they immediately tried to undo the damage that must be within them, which allowed them to be bystanders at such a tragedy. However, only Pinchas realized that kriyas Shema alone would not uproot the problem.

Only Pinchas was aware that a sin of such depravity could only have taken place “within sight of the Jewish people” if those people already carried some trace of the same flaw. Declaring the unity of G-d, while praiseworthy, wasn’t the right remedy to fully uproot the trace of that sin, and the damage caused by witnessing it. For that, a far harsher method was needed—that was the zealous act of Pinchas, destroying the sin together with the sinners. It left the deepest and most indelible impression on every individual within klal Yisrael, that immorality is detestable to Hashem, is intolerable, cannot be borne.

When we open this week’s parshah and find that Pinchas the kanoi, who took the spear in hand and “acted out My kinah,” we shouldn’t be taken aback any longer that he was rewarded with a covenant of peace, with the pact of kehunah. The job description of the kohein is to serve as a means of reconciling the Jewish people to G-d through the avodah, and to follow the path of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace. Pinchas isn’t a zealot, Pinchas proved that he was a true kohein—although the means appeared to be the antithesis of peace, their purpose and final result was the restoration of shalom.