Zeal vs. Divinity by Ben Notis


The twenty-fifth Perek of BeMidbar, the end of Parashat Balak, begins to describe how part of Bnei Yisrael assimilates with its neighboring nations; the Jews intermingle with the daughters of Moav and worship the local god, Baal Peor, “VaYitzamed Yisrael LiBaal Peor,” “nd Bnei Yisrael became attached to Baal Peor”(BeMidbar 25:3). Consequently, Hashem sends upon the Jews a plague, to which he presents a cure: to hang all of Bnei Yisrael’s leaders. However, Mosheh strangely alters God’s command and instructs the judges of Israel to authorize the killing of the Jewish worshipers of Baal. Amidst the turmoil, a Jewish man brings a Midyanite woman to the entrance of the tent of meeting. Pinchas, grandson of Aharon, disobeys both Hashem’s and Mosheh’s conflicting commands by killing the man and the woman in one stroke, halting the ravaging plague that killed 24,000 Jews. Pinchas’s zealous, spontaneous, simple act caused Hashem to cease a plague that had already killed thousands. After this episode, Hashem commands a census to be taken. The reason for the seemingly out-of-place commandment’s proximity to the story of Pinchas can be explained through exploring the relationship between the Jew’s assimilation and the relationship between the motives of Pinchas and Hashem.

Even though Pinchas’s zealous act allowed a devastating plague to end, Pinchas’s zealotry still possessed a human, over-the-top quality. Pinchas lacked the supreme ability to judge the true punishment for the committed crime. Hashem, on the other hand, aptly commanded a census to be taken for a reason. Rashi states that just as a shepherd counts his sheep after wolves have attacked them, Hashem counted Bnei Yisrael as a term of endearment. However, that theme can be taken further. Hashem is claiming the Jews as a way of endearing them to counteract the aim of the worshipers of Baal, the Moavites and the Midyanites, who tried their best to conform the Jews to disintegrate their identity. Pinchas tried to fix the horrible situation by acting upon his human judgment to control the assimilation problem. However, Pinchas’s “humanity” was not adequate. Therefore, Hashem, in his divine supremacy, denounced assimilation by counting Bnei Yisrael, showing the other nations that the Jews have and will continue to survive.

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