Parshat Pinchas is named for one of the most fascinating personalities of the Torah. Pinchas, at the end of the previous Parsha, sees Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon, engaging in a public act of immorality and idolatry. Pinchas is unable to stand by and quite literally takes the law into his own hands, killing Zimri in a public spectacle.
When the Torah describes the aftermath of Pinchas’s actions in the beginning of this week’s Parsha, it seems to unconditionally applaud him. The Torah states that Pinchas was singularly responsible for preventing the spread of a deadly plague that was precipitated by Zimri’s actions. Pinchas is blessed with a ברית שלום – a covenant of peace. He is promised that he and his children will eternally serve as priests. (Rashi, quoting the Gemara in Zevachim, explains that until this point only Aharon and his immediate children were ordained to serve as Kohanim. Pinchas’s reward is that he and his children will also serve as Kohanim.)
Chazal point out that Pinchas’s action constitutes one ofקנאות, zealotry. As such, Pinchas put his own life in danger as קנאין פוגעין בו – Zimri, or any member of his family, had the right to kill Pinchas in self-defense. The Torah may be alluding to this fact when it says Pinchas acted ,בתוכם in the view of many people. The Torah is stressing that Pinchas acted bravely in a place where he put his own life in jeopardy. Furthermore, the Ibn Ezra explains the ברית שלום as referring to a Divine promise to Pinchas that no member of Zimri’s family would exact revenge, as the law allowed them! The picture of Pinchas that emerges from Chazal is one of a brave person who took upon himself great risk to elevate the name of Hashem.
Pinchas acted on impulse, doing what he felt was correct. No one else – Moshe, Aharon or otherwise – responded with the force that Pinchas displayed. The very Halacha of zealotry requires some form of explanation. Is zealotry something that is required? It does not seem so. This would explain why only Pinchas decided to act.
The message of Pinchas is two-fold. On the one hand, we must appreciate that extremism, as in this form of zealotry, must be viewed cautiously. It is dangerous on both a physical and spiritual level to act in this fashion unless one is truly justified. However, the extremism of Pinchas saved the Jews from further destruction. We must always understand the consequences of our actions. If we act without Hashem’s ברית שלום, our consequences could be disastrous. Pinchas teaches us to stand up for our beliefs, but always to act as Aharon, as an אוהב שלום ורודף שלום, one who ultimately furthers peace.