Both Zimri and Pinchas seem to get too much credit. While Zimri was no
hero, we find it hard to understand why the sin of a single individual
came close to compromising the existence of the entire Jewish people.
(Hashem Himself wrote that the effect of Pinchas rising to the occasion is
that “I did not consume Bnei Yisrael in my vengeance.”2 ) And if we should manage to understand the
culpability of an entire nation for his offense, we then find it equally
difficult to comprehend why the zealous behavior of a single person could
atone for it!
We begin our answer with a sobering observation. Incomplete
teshuvah is a more serious shortcoming than the commission of the
aveirah in the first place! The explanation is rather simple.
Within almost every transgression lies an element of compulsion.
Overpowered by our yetzer hora, we stop thinking rationally. (As
Chazal put it, a person only sins when overcome with a spirit of
folly.3 ) We are driven as if by a
demonic force to whose power we submit, but which we regard as foreign to
our essential selves. To some degree, we do not sin with all our
spiritual tools intact.
We cannot say the same about the process of teshuvah. Long after
our passion subsides, we can calmly and deliberately survey the damage we
have done to ourselves through our sin. Nothing interferes with the
exercise of our free will at this point. If at such a time of awareness
and focus we cannot own up to the devastation wrought by our
aveirah, if we do not realize the fullness of its evil, we heap
additional culpability upon our original transgression. Observing a sin,
whether a sin in progress, or one that we review in our mind’s eye, ought
to move us. Failing to be moved is a serious shortcoming.
Bnei Yisrael watched as one of its respected leaders brazenly announced
his intention of committing an act of immorality. An entire public was
aware of his intention. Watching him march off to his tent with Kozbi in
tow should have left them shuddering in horror and disgust. It didn’t.
Their indifference and equanimity endangered their survival. HKBH could
have ended the relationship with Klal Yisrael then and there.
You will object that Bnei Yisrael were certainly not indifferent. The
Torah reports that Moshe and Bnei Yisrael “were weeping at the entrance of
the Ohel Moed.”4 Clearly, they
were unhappy with Zimri’s behavior. They rejected it, and were pained and
saddened to contemplate it. What more could have been expected of them?
Much more. The Magid of Kozhnitz draws a parallel between the first
principle of kashering utensils and purging our inner selves of
the accumulated poison of our aveiros. Chazal tell us that vessels
give up their non-kosher absorptions in the same manner that
they “swallowed” them in the first place.5 If a utensil was used at a cool temperature, it can be
made ready for kosher use by washing it in cool water. If it was used at
high temperature, it can be koshered only by purging it at high
temperature. Teshuvah must be done in precisely the same way.
Sins committed coolly and relatively dispassionately can be remedied by a
cool but firm resolution to not repeat the aveirah. Sins committed
with zeal and alacrity, however, can only be dealt with in a similar
fashion. Their teshuvah requires greater affect and emotional
We should add a third level. Halacha dictates that vessels used directly
over the fire cannot be koshered save through the direct application of
the intensity of a flame. Sometimes we sin with enthusiasm, with fiery
passion burning within, bringing our blood to a boil. The tikkun of
such transgression requires us to fight fire with fire. Our
teshuvah must come from a fire of kedushah that consumes the
tumah we have brought upon ourselves.
Pinchas was the source of that fire. He sprang into action with fiery
devotion, spear in hand, risking his life for the honor of heaven. (Spear
is romach, whose letters also spell out the acronym ramach,
or 248, the number of parts of the body. This alludes to his willingness
to put the entirety of his being at risk in order to accomplish his task.)
While Bnei Yisrael could manage no more than some tepid tears, Pinchas
reacted like a man on fire.
Pinchas’ action spread like wildfire. It ignited the souls of those who
beheld his action. Suddenly, they too were aroused – and were able to see
the enormity of the aveirah they had witnessed. The purity of his
action burnt through their tumah-encased vision, and they saw the
truth as it was. (The word besochom6 - in their midst – takes on new meaning. It suggests,
according to our approach, that Pinchas succeeded in planting kinas
Hashem within all their hearts.) What made Pinchas’ action so
important was not the selflessness of his dedication alone. More important
was the effect it had on the rest of the community.
A famous teaching of the Baal Shem Tov leads us to a variation on our
theme. If a Jew witnesses an aveirah, taught the Besht, he has
been shown a sign from Heaven that he is deficient in the very same area.
(The Besht once saw a Jew transgress Shabbos. After some soul-searching,
he remembered that he had witnessed the belittling of a talmid
chacham – whose entire existence is on the place of Shabbos – and not
lifted his voice in protest.) Zimri’s flagrant sin, performed for everyone
to know about, indicated that they were all deficient in the same area of
kedushah. The tikkun for such a failing in kedushah
would come only through a soul ablaze with passion for Hashem. Pinchas’
incandescent zealousness provided the remedy that was needed.
Another element of the story may also allow different readings. Above, we
were critical of the way Bnei Yisroel initially responded to Zimri’s
announcement. Crying, we thought, was a limp and listless reaction to
watching a spiritual chasm open up in front of you. Perhaps, however,
they did not cry out of sadness for the crime and the chilul
Hashem. Perhaps they cried for themselves, feeling helplessness and
self-pity over where they had descended as a community. This would put
them in a much better light, would it not?
It would not. The Sabba Kadisha of Slonim explained that when the
yetzer hora succeeds in ensnaring a person in aveirah, his
chief satisfaction is in making the sinner feel hopeless and despairing.
A sinner entertains notions that he has so disrupted the bond between
himself and his Creator, that he has distanced himself completely from his
holy Source. This leaves him feeling weak and powerless, abandoning his
inner strength, losing hope of ever amounting to anything of substance.
These negative feelings are antithetical to avodas Hashem, and can
do more harm than the aveirah that spawned them. A Jew must always
have utter confidence that, despite failings of the worst kind, he is by
nature a ben Melech, and a father never abandons his son.
Might Zimri’s bold challenge to kedushas Yisrael have precipitated
similar feelings of despair and impotence? Was their’s a cry of weakness
and futility? If so, we can appreciate how a singular display of strength
by Pinchas could have lifted all of them from perilous spiritual
However we interpret the details, our parshah teaches us about the
emotional charge and strength we must bring to contemplating
aveiros. In looking upon the failings of our community, or upon
our personal indiscretions within the progress of our teshuvah, we
must be able to react with appropriate emotional vigor and resoluteness.