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Parashat Pinchas

Appreciating Diversity


The Midrash tells us that Moshe was not sure about who should succeed him after his passing (Midrash Rabbah 21:2). Hence, he turned to G-d to appoint a suitable successor to lead the Jewish People: Master of the Universe, You know the opinions of each and every one of them, and the differences between them. I beg of You that when I depart from them, appoint a leader to replace me who can appreciate each one of their opinions. Thus, Moshe said, יפקוד אלקים אלקי הרוחות (May G-d of the spirits appoint…)


Apropos of the mention of human diversity, the Midrash (as well as the Gemara) notes that upon seeing a vast gathering of people (600,000), one is to make the blessing,ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם חכם הרזים (Blessed are You, G-d … the Wise One of the secrets). The Midrash explains that “just as human faces are different from one another, so, too, their opinions are different from one other.” Now, let us consider this unique blessing for a moment. It is the only blessing where we refer to G-d as The Wise One. Although the world is full of so many creatures and creations that testify to G-d’s infinite wisdom, only when we see overwhelming human diversity do we bless G-d as The Wise One. Why?


We can appreciate the answer to this question through the following exercise. Imagine for a moment that you walk into a large waiting room where there are another fifty people of your gender. As you look around to see if there is anyone you know, the first face that meets your eye has a striking resemblance to none other than…yourself! Now, as you continue to survey the faces to see if there is anyone you can tell that you just discovered your double, you notice that everyone else in the room has the very same face!! The shivers going down your spine intensify as you slowly realize that they all have the same voice, mannerisms, and opinions as you. Only their names and background separate your identity from theirs.


As we shake ourselves out of this nightmare, we can’t help but thank G-d for creating a world of diversity for us. It is a world in which everyone can feel special – and rightly so. As our Rabbis tell us, לעולם יאמר אדם בשבילי נברא העולם (A person should always say that for me alone it was worthwhile for G-d to create the world). And the uniqueness in each of our features, voice, opinions, and fingerprints constantly remind us of this.


In a sense, the greatest good that G-d bestowed on human beings is their unique and individualized consciousness and capacity to think. (See beginning of Introduction to Chovot Halevovot).  G-d could have created us as robots – or beings that do not have a consciousness to think differently or perceive from different perspectives. Realizing the wisdom of G-d in people’s diverse outlooks and opinions can help us appreciate these differences much more. And once we do, we will be able to interact with them much more successfully. It is no accident that people we consider “wise” are generally those who respect and validate the perspective of others. And this is also the beauty of Jewish prayer in a minyan (quorum of ten). Each person is saying the same words, but concurrently intending those words in a unique, personalized way.


In closing, let us take another look at the statement of our Sages cited above: “Just as human faces are different from one another, so, too, their opinions are different from one other” (כשם שאין פרצופיהם דומין זה לזה כך אין דעתן שוין זה לזה )  One insightful individual explained, with a smile, why the Sages specifically compare different faces and different outlooks: Just as it does not bother us in the least when someone else has a face different from ours, so it should not bother us when someone has an opinion different from ours!


This, in essence, is what Moshe requested of G-d – a successor who could appreciate the people’s differences of opinion and perspective. This quality is desirable not only for the leader of the Nation, but for each and every one of us as well.



When we mention great rabbis and other righteous people who have passed away, we are accustomed to take note of their righteousness by adding, zecher tzaddik livracha (May the memory of the tzaddik be blessed). These words originate from King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs (Mishlei 10:7): זכר צדיק לברכה ושם רשעים ירקב  (May the memory of the righteous be blessed, and the names of the wicked rot). Similarly, in our parashah, the Torah publicizes the punishment Zimri received for his actions as well as the reward Pinchas received for his bravery and zealousness .


The common understanding of why we say “zecher tzaddik librachah” is to bless the name and memory of the tzaddik. The Dubno Maggid, however, offers an alternative explanation which enriches our understanding of the custom. He writes that when one mentions the tzaddik and how he is remembered for blessing, he internalizes the pleasure of being a tzaddik. Indeed, in certain Chassidic circles, it is said that just by mentioning the names of the tzaddikim, one can be saved from sin. At first glance, this is hard to understand, but in light of the Dubno Maggad’s explanation, it is readily understandable.


The fact is that people’s actions are usually motivated by the desire for some sort of pleasure. And, of course, people will usually refrain from doing something when pain is related to this action – or sometimes even just lack of pleasure. A person who is addicted to cigarettes, for example, will refrain from smoking when his cough gets bad enough. An adolescent who is addicted to chocolate will overcome his addiction (at least partially) if his dermatologist insists that chocolate is ruining his complexion. On the other hand, a person will often transgress certain cherished values when the pleasure “payoff” is high enough.


On occasion, we may find ourselves facing the well-known dilemma: the pleasure of sin or the pain of the aftermath. More frequently, the dilemma is something of this nature: the pleasure of sleeping in another few minutes or the pain of missing the bus and being reprimanded by the boss for coming in late for work (again).


At times like these, the more we associate righteousness and responsibility with pleasure, and wickedness and irresponsibility with pain, the better off we will be. To accomplish this, we would do well to meditate on the verse with which we opened: זכר צדיק לברכה ושם רשעים ירקב  – May the memory of the righteous be blessed, and the names of the wicked rot.





G-d asks us: “Who preceded Me that I must pay him?” – Who praised Me before I gave him a soul? Who circumcised their son before I gave them a son?  Who put a mezuzah on his door before I gave him a house? Who built a sukkah before I gave him a place to build one? Who made Me a lulav before I gave him the money to buy one? Who attached tzitzit to his clothes before I gave him clothes to wear?” (VaYikra Rabba 27)


This Midrash seems to suggest that every mitzvah we do is perceived by G-d as merely a necessary and expected expression of appreciation for all the goodness He has bestowed on us. If so, is there any room for doing mitzvot simply out of a desire to serve our beloved Master? Moreover, when we return our souls to G-d after our lifelong journey, how can we hope to be rewarded for living according to the Torah? We shall see that our Parashah provides an answer to these questions.  But first, a little background…


Another Midrash makes this comment on Pinchas’ zealousness in punishing the two brazen sinners, Zimri and Cazbi:בדין הוא שיטול שכרו  – Pinchas was worthy of his reward – the “Covenant of Peace” (Midrash Rabbah 21). This meant that Pinchas merited joining the rest of his family in becoming a Kohen. According to Targum Yonatan, this meant that G-d made Pinchas immortal, and will give him the privilege of announcing the Final Redemption and the coming of Mashiach. But how can we understand this concept of rightful reward in light of the previous Midrash which suggests that no reward is due us for performing mitzvot, which are our duty and obligation to G-d?


There is a well-known saying from Kotzk which can give us a handle on this paradox: “A person is not measured by how many mitzvot he has done, but rather by how much of his heart he put into his mitzvot – even just one.”


There are relatively few Torah-mandated mitzvot (mitzvoth d’oraita) that we encounter on a daily basis. In fact, Rav Wolbe zt”l reckoned that there are only nine (out of 248) such positive Commandments:

* Reciting Shema

* Wearing tzitzit

*Putting on tefillin


*Learning Torah

*Blessing after bread

*Giving charity

*Respecting and standing up for elders and parents

*Resting on Shabbat


How well we serve G-d is more or less determined by this small group of mitzvot. The key, however, is how much thought we put into them. (This is easier said than done since proper concentration is more difficult when mitzvot are done frequently.) Rabbi Yehudah Tzadkah zt”l writes that if a person does a mitzvah out of sincere ahavat HaShem (love of G-d) and not only out of yirat shamayim (fear of G-d), he can legitimately ask G-d to reward him for this. The reason is that a mitzvah done with ahavat HaShem goes beyond what we are commanded. Doing a mitzvah out of love of G-d is an act that projects one’s inner desire to fulfill G-d’s Will. For this elevated act, one is rightfully worthy of reward. This is also true when one does something out of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice). Ultimately, the quality of, and dedication to the mitzvah do justify G-d rewarding us.


Pinchas is an excellent example of going beyond what one is commanded to do – הלכה ואין מורין כן .  He acted out of the pain he experienced in seeing the desecration of G-d’s Name and the disrespect to Moshe. In punishing Zimri and Cazbi, he put his life on the line, and therefore merited immortality.


We can apply this concept of improving the quality of our actions to many aspects of life as well: family, relationships, work – to name just a few. This means putting the emphasis on quality over quantity, and putting our thoughts into what we do. The fact is that a wide spectrum of people have daily schedules which are very similar. But those who give thought to ensuring the quality of each of their activities and engagements generally succeed in life much, much more than those who do not.



G-d rewarded Pinchas with a “Covenant of Peace” ((בריתי שלום for his zealotry in executing the renegades Zimri and Cazbi. As Rabbi Yehuda Tzadka zt”l notes, this episode raises a provocative question. We know that G-d rewards the righteous on a measure-for-measure basis (middah k’negged middah). The reason for this is to enable us to connect the deed with the reward, and recognize the Giver of the reward. Through this ingenious system, we also learn which actions should be repeated. Now, in light of G-d’s measure-for-measure approach, how are we to understand the reward of “Peace” given to Pinchas for an act of “violence” more characteristic of war?


In a nutshell, Rabbi Tzadka’s answer is that while the same action can be performed by different people, their motivation may be entirely different. An act of zealousness, for example – like that of Pinchas – can be performed for a variety of reasons. Examples of the wrong reasons would be the desire for honor or the desire to cut down the other party. Neither of these motives were in the least bit behind Pinchas’ deed. He acted purely out of recognition of the right thing to do.


The verse describing the response of Pinchas to the sacrilegious actions of Zimri and Cazbi hints at the purity of his motivation: ויקח רמח (He took a spear). The commentators deduce from this that Pinchas was very different from the many zealots whose motivation is not pure. They walk around – literally or figuratively – with some sort of spear looking for someone to stick it into. Pinchas, in contrast, went against his nature and had to take a spear. He was thus the perfect candidate to act out of zealousness. What he did was nothing less than an act of self-sacrifice for the truth. Moshe communicated that this was a moment that called for zealousness, and Pinchas promptly followed through. His “war-like” action served the cause of ultimate peace because it restored the peace between G-d and the Jewish People. G-d testified to this by giving Pinchas His “Covenant of Peace” – the ultimate reward.


Purity and clarity of motive is something we should be seeking in all life areas. This is especially true when the actions or behaviors of others seem wrong to us and we feel motivated to fight for the truth. How can we check on what is really motivating us? One way is by asking ourselves penetrating questions, and verbalizing the answers.  For example:

* “Do you want to be the one involved, or would you be at peace if this injustice is stopped by someone else as well?”

* “If you were not connected with the insult, would you still be so gung-ho about silencing or getting revenge against the perpetrator?”

* “If the one who did this evil was a relative or a loved one, would you still try to set things straight at their expense?”


Rabbi Tzadka concludes his discussion with the warning that the would-be “zealot” must first consult with the sages before taking action. This is an excellent way for him to double-check his motives. By overlooking this safeguard, he risks losing his portion in the next world – and his portion in this world as well!


About the author, Yosef

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