A teaching of Simcha Bunam of Peshischa, from Kol Simcha, Parshat Pinhas.
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Pinhas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.'” Numbers 25:10-12
Our rabbis add that the Holy One of Blessing said, “Because he gave up his reward [of serving as a priest by killing a man], I now give him My covenant of peace” (1).
Now there is no reward for a mitzvah in this world, so how is it that Pinhas was rewarded in this world for his mitzvah of avenging God? The midrash tells us that in the same moment Pinhas killed Zimri his soul took flight, and the Holy One of Blessing mercifully returned it to him. So it turns out that because Pinhas had died, he was due his reward. When the Holy One of Blessing, in His great mercy, returned Pinhas’ soul, it would not have been merciful to also take away the reward that was due him, so Pinhas was given his heavenly reward in this life.
1) Bamidbar Rabbah 25:1; a priest who has killed a man cannot participate in all the priestly functions, eg, saying the Priestly Benediction. Also, there is a midrash that Pinhas died at the moment he killed Zimri. Therefore Pinhas was forfeiting at least his own priestly benefits if not his very life to do what he saw as right in the service of G!d.
Pinhas is a problematic figure in the tradition, not just for peace-loving modern Jews but for the sages going back a couple thousand years. The idea of self-appointed, spear-wielding zealots meting out God’s justice scared them as much as it does us. They responded in two ways: through halachah, by legislating against this kind of behavior, and through aggadah, trying to make sense of the story through interpretation. In Sanhedrin 82a they give us the bullet points of Jewish law on this case:
- we should never give someone permission to do such a thing
- if someone takes it upon himself to kill someone who fornicates with an idolater in plain sight of the public, then it has to be done at the moment of intercourse
- if it is done at any other moment, then the avenger is liable for capital punishment as a murderer
- the fornicator has the right to defend himself, even to the point of taking the avenger’s life, and cannot be held accountable for his death
What the Peshischer rebbe picks up on in his teaching, though, is the aggadah, the rabbinic reinterpretation of the story, specifically the story that Pinhas’ soul “flew from him” in the moment that he killed Zimri and Kosbi. Why would his soul fly away? It seems to me that the most obvious answer is because it was not Pinhas’ nature to kill anyone; on the contrary, he was a peaceful soul. It was only the magnitude of the blasphemy happening before him, and the knowledge, which according to another midrash came to him in the form of prophecy, that death and destruction would follow if he didn’t act, that drove him to kill. That is why he is given — ironically or fittingly, depending on how you look at it — God’s “covenant of peace.”
This then serves the Peshischer rebbe as a model for service and reward. My read of this teaching is that we actually do receive a reward for our good deeds in this life — but only if we are not seeking them, in the same way that Pinhas’ violent act was righteous only because it was the last thing he wanted to do. In a combination of paradox and perfect justice, it is only when we are willing to offer up our lives (literally or figuratively) in serving God that we are rewarded in this life.