Was Pinchas the Bad Guy?

By Avi Kallenbach

Something interesting that you don’t hear every day….

In the Mei HaShiloach a collection of derashot on the parsha said by Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbizce there is a very interesting, if not radical  approach to the sin of Zimri and the zealotry of Pinchas (which is recorded at the end of parshat Balak and the beginning of parshat Pinchas.)

In short, the Torah records that Zimri committed a sin of sleeping with a Midianite woman. Moses did not know what to do and Pinchas stepped up to the plate and killed Zimri and the Midianite woman, for which he was rewarded by God with his “covenant of peace”.

Says the Mei HaShiloach, actually, Zimri did the right thing! And it was Pinchas who was wrong in killing him.


In Izbice Chassidut there exists the psychological excercize of Berur or “sifting”. Birur consists of introspection to determine ones own inner  motivations and drives. To put things simply, our motivations can either derive from the Yetzer Hara – the evil inclination – our lusts and desires for unworthy things or from our Yetzer HaTov – the good inclination – our dedication to God and our desire to perform his will. The act of Berur determines whether a certain desire derives from a selfish evil desire or a desire corresponding to the will of God.

So far so good, but now things get interesting. If one has a desire for something illicit. Such as Zimri’s desire for a Midianite woman, one must try with all his might to suppress this desire and not act upon it. One must defeat the Yetzer HaRa. The Mei HaShiloach says that there are ten stages (corresponding to ten sefirot) of ascendancy over the Yetzer HaRa. The tenth is complete domination and the ability to not be swayed at all by the suggestions of the Yetzer HaRa.

It could happen that someone on this exalted ten level  might continue to feel an uncontrollable desire for some illicit act. It burns in him strongly in spite of his acumen in suppressing it. What does this mean? It can’t be the Yetzer HaRa for that has already been completely suppressed!  Rather, it means that the illicit desire is not illicit! It does not stem from the Yetzer HaRa but rather from the will of God! The psychological introspection of Berur checks this desire and determines that it stems from a pure source and therefore must be acted upon in order to carry out the will of God.

This was why Zimri acted as he did. He realized that his desire for the Midianite woman did not stem from the Yetzer HaRa but rather from the will of God.

Pinchas was shortsighted. He thought too technically too superficially. On the outside, yes, Zimri was commiting a sin. But Pinchas did not realize that this was a “sin” stemming deeply from the will of God, as Zimri had determined through the act of Birur. Despite Pinchas’ mistake he was considered guiltless and even righteous. Because although he did not reach the deeper meaning of Zimri’s act he nevertheless acted according to his reasoning, and according to his reasoning he performed an act of valor and mesirat nefesh.

Although thiexplanation of the Mei HaShiloach is very antinomian there is no evidence that Izbice Chassidim were antinomian themselves…

He doesn’t say this but it seems pretty obvious to me that Zimri is the Chossid who does things that are not in strict adherence to Halacha but are for the greater good whereas Pinchas is the grumpy Litvak who stubbornly keeps every halachic detail no matter what. The Mei HaShiloach is essentially saying that the path of Zimri is ultimately the better however there is still legitimacy in the acts of the Litvak Pinchas.

The vort  with a short English explanation can be found here. 



Filed under Kabbalah and Chassidus

2 responses to “Was Pinchas the Bad Guy?

  1. Russ Shulkes

    “Although this explanation of the Mei HaShiloach is very antinomian there is no evidence that Izbice Chassidim were antinomian themselves…”

    By this, you mean that Rabbi Leiner was advocating a position that Halakha would reject. Accordingly, even though he is a chassid and even though he looks frum, should not this approach to the Pinchas-Zimri incident (and halakha) be outright rejected, if not by frum Jews, at least by modern Orthodox ones?

  2. This vort essentially says that there are certain things that are more important than strict formalistic Halacha. I don’t think, however, that he is telling people to do this in practice. I assume that the Mei HaShiloach would say to anyone trying to pull such a stunt nowadays that “you’re not on a high enough level.

    as for rejecting that’s really up to you I wouldn’t be so bold as to declare it outside the bounds of Orthodoxy. One of the defining characteristics of Orthodox Judaism (IMHO) is a basic dedication to the concept of Halacha. However, it should not be forgotten, that Halacha, derives *ultimately* from the will of God. (Of course human discretion plays a role but the *ultimate* goal of interpretation or adjudication is to follow the will of God) I am aware of Rabbi Eliezer and “it is not in heaven”, and that is a whole other very complicated discussion, but still I think that according to Orthodox Judaism Halacha ultimately gains its basic authority from the fact that it expresses the will of God.

    That being said a direct dictate from God to do other than Halacha would surely be obligatory and override Halacha? The Mei HaShiloach considers Zimri’s impulse more than just a feeling but an expression of God’s will. If he is right then Zimri’s act is no different than God’s commandment to Elijah to offer up a sacrifice on a Bama. (as per the understanding of the Gemara… don’t remember the exact source…)

    I don’t know if you would call this “going against Halacha” or an “exception in Halacha” but I still don’t see why, in theory, this vort although very radical is “out of bounds”…

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