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Dirty Business

“Thou shalt not kill.”

Almost all societies consider murder to be an extremely serious crime. Although it’s one of the Ten Commandments, it’s probably one of those things that doesn’t require revelation for us to be aware of it; it’s intuitive and near-universal across almost all ages and civilizations.

In modern political science, the state has a monopoly on violence. The state alone has the right to use or authorize physical force; individuals do not have the right to commit violence. It is the hallmark of civil society when citizens do not commit wanton acts of violence against each other.

In our Tradition, even though Jewish courts and governments historically possessed this power, they were judicious to the extreme in its application; a court that killed more than once in a lifetime was considered bloodthirsty.

And yet, on the other hand, the Torah presents us with the story of Pinchas, heralded as he is for the public assassination of a political leader! His act is jarring for at least two reasons. Firstly, the killing apparently makes him a hero; and secondly, it’s an extrajudicial killing – only the state can commit acts of violence, and Pinchas was a civilian! 

If Pinchas was just a civilian, and the Torah doesn’t advocate violence, how is Pinchas a hero for being a killer?

It’s an important question because the answer is revealing. 

Pinchas is not a hero for being a killer; he’s a hero for something else.

God never endorses the killing; God endorses Pinchas’ passion – הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, it’s not; our Tradition does not laud the killing. Our Sages say that while it may have been the right thing to do, we don’t do that – הלכה ואין מורין כן.

The Chomas Esh reminds us that the Torah speaks to individuals, so you cannot justify your own inaction by pointing to others. The Ten Commandments are stated in the second person, to each of us personally – I am Hashem your God; Thou shall not kill. Pinchas did his duty to his God as he understood it, the masses be damned – תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו – that’s why he’s a hero, for his boldness and courage.

It’s worthwhile to note that in the heat of the moment, Pinchas could not know what we know. He wasn’t a prophet, and he could not know that the story would have a happy ending for him. Up to that point, as Rashi notes, Pinchas was a nobody in everyone’s eye; he risked his life to stand up and strike. The vast majority of the camp had fallen prey to the ladies of Midian, and while some people held back and could remain on the outskirts of the calamity, Pinchas alone stepped into the fray, stood against them, and challenged their ringleader.

Humans are heavily socialized creatures; we often hold ourselves to the standards of the people around us. One adage suggests that our character and mentality are the average of the five people we spend the most time with! We do what others do and don’t do what others don’t; we don’t like to stand out from our peers, so we excuse our shortcomings by hiding in the crowd. After all, am I any better or worse than the other guy?

While it’s undoubtedly the inflection point in the story, it bears considering what Pinchas thought would happen. He can’t have expected to survive, and he stepped into the fray anyway. 

That’s why he’s a hero, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the killing.

He’s a hero because he steps towards the unthinkable against all odds. He doesn’t ask or wait for anyone’s permission. He remembers his identity and where he comes from – פִּינְחָס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן.

Through his bold act, he revealed that the bystanders and victims and ourselves had the power and capacity to do more all along. His daring act stands as an example that ought to make people who believe themselves helpless and powerless dig a little deeper. He doesn’t preach or shout at the people caught up in trouble, nor at the people who are too scared to get involved – he just leads by example; bold, brave, and decisive in the face of danger, fear, and uncertainty.

That’s what God endorses, and it’s the act of courage that sparks salvation. God could have stopped the plague at any point; God could have foiled the threat posed by the Midianite women wandering into the camp at multiple junctures along the way. But God deliberately doesn’t step in to avert the catastrophe until one of the people bravely risks himself to do what needs to be done – הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם.

The Midrash imagines a primordial internal discussion before God creates humanity, where Charity and Kindness advocate for God to proceed, as humans will be good and kind to each other. But Peace and Truth object because humans will fight and lie. The dispute is tied in deadlock, and God casts Truth from the sky, so Charity and Kindness carry the day, and God creates humanity.

The Kotzker observed that God had to throw Truth out, not Peace. It wasn’t about a majority; it’s because the Truth can stand alone and doesn’t require backup. The Truth is the truth, and however many people stand against it, the truth will out. 

As the example of Pinchas shows, it takes heroic courage and determination to go against the crowd, tremendous conviction, inner strength, and willpower. And unlike Pinchas, we’re probably not going to get a shoutout and a magical blessing from God for doing the right thing. But the right thing remains the right thing.

If there’s something to do, don’t wait for someone else to do it; do it now, and don’t think twice. Stop thinking, start doing. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s just doing it anyway.

It’s better to walk alone than a crowd going in the wrong direction.