By Rabbi Berel Wein
This week’s Torah portion warns us not to be swept away by current culture, media, and societal popularity and by those who are quick to condemn others for their thoughts and actions. When Pinchas killed Zimri and his consort he was roundly criticized and threatened by the those in Jewish society because of this act of zealotry. When this act occurred, society considered it to be wrong, harmful, and worthy of criticism. Later, in the full light and perspective of the time, this act was not only acceptable but the obvious path necessary, and, in fact, heroic. Pinchas’s critics mentioned the fact that his own pedigree was uncertain, since, although he was the grandson of Aaron, he was also a product of a woman who was of Midianite origin. Moshe himself was married to a daughter of Yitro the high priest of Midian and did nothing.
By what right, then, did Pinchas take it upon himself to commit this double killing? Implicit in this is the accusation as to who made him the zealot, the enforcer, so to speak, of G-d’s will. This was a usurpation of power and status that he arrogated to himself. In short, Pinchas was not to be seen as a hero or as a holy person. But, rather, he was considered the impetuous upstart that committed a double killing without proper sanction or legality. But the Torah records that Heaven itself intervened to set the record straight and to clearly support and justify the behavior and actions of Pinchas.
There are so many times in history that this story has repeated itself, albeit always under different circumstances. History turns temporary heroes, beloved in their time, into eternal villains when judged by later historical facts and occurrences. History can also rehabilitate people and ideas that were once scorned, held up to ridicule and contempt, and show how the original judgment, event or person was faulty. There have been many movements and personalities in the history of the Jewish people who achieved temporary fame and popularity, but who are completely forgotten in the long view that history grants us. And many who were criticized, called obstructionists and out of touch with society have proven to be prescient and heroic in retrospect. We are always quick to judge, especially when we have our own preconceived ideas as to what is or what should be. We can look back and see the mistakes of previous generations, of physical and spiritual tragedy within the Jewish world. Yet, somehow, we also continue today to allow our own personal biases to affect our judgment of events, leaders, and ideas. This is one of the most fundamental ideas that we can learn from the reading of this week. It is especially relevant to our current society and its challenges.