This has been a difficult week.
"HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen has turned back My fury from upon the Children of Israel by being zealous for My zealousness in their midst, so I did not destroy the Children of Israel. Therefore, say: I hereby give him My covenant of peace; and it will be his and his descendants' after him - a covenant of eternal Kehunah ['priesthood'], in return for having been zealous for his God and atoning for the Children of Israel." (Numbers 25:10)
This has been a difficult week, a depressing week, a demoralising week. We have a general rule that no reading Had Zimri son of Salu, the Israelite leader in question, killed Pinchas in self-defence, he would have been justified. ends on a depressing note. This is the reason that when we conclude the public readings of Isaiah (Haftarah of Shabbat Rosh Chodesh), Malachi (Haftarah of Shabbat HaGadol), Lamentations (on the 9th of Av), and Ecclesiastes (on Shabbat of Chol HaMo'ed Sukkot), we always repeat the penultimate verse of each of these books. Each of them ends with a negative idea, so we repeat the previous verse in order to conclude with a more pleasant theme.
But last week's parasha breaks that rule. Parashat Balak concludes with the words, "And those [Jews] who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand." (Numbers 25:9) This final verse, the death of 24,000 Jews - equivalent to two days in Auschwitz - has been reverberating in our ears since last Shabbat morning.
This has been a gloomy week on other levels, too. Last Shabbat, the 9th of Tammuz, was the date that Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian army breached the walls of Jerusalem in the year 3338 (422 BCE; II Kings 25:1-3; Jeremiah 39:5). This date was observed as a fast day throughout the Babylonian exile and until the Second Temple was rebuilt (Rosh HaShanah 18b; Tur, Orach Chaim 549). When the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem on the 17th of Tammuz 3828 (68 CE), the fast was moved to that date; but in any event, this week we already began to hear the echoes of the impending Three Weeks of mourning.
And last Shabbat, the 9th of Tammuz, was also the yahrtzeit of seven Jews who were murdered at the French Hill hitch-hiking station by an Arab suicide terrorist in 5762 (2002).
Four days later, on Wednesday, we saw the government of Israel commit one of the most despicable acts since the signing of the Oslo death accords 15 years ago, when the cabinet voted to release some of the most vicious and bloodthirsty terrorists who ever graced Israeli prisons. President Shimon Peres sanctimoniously declared that "my hand will shudder as I sign the release-form" (and one wonders if that same hand shuddered before it shook Yasser Arafat's blood-stained hand, before it hugged Arafat's body, before it signed the Oslo death accords, or before it gave 70,000 Kalachnikov assault rifles to the PLO).
And then comes this week's parasha: "Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen has turned back My fury from upon the Children on Israel by being zealous for My zealousness in their midst, so I did not destroy the Children of Israel." How exactly did Pinchas save the Children of Israel, and earn himself and his descendants an eternal covenant of peace with God Himself in the process?
Well, not by making a peace agreement with enemies who were sworn to Israel's destruction, nor by granting amnesty to murderers, nor yet by agreeing to coexist with evil. Rather, "Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen saw [the Jewish leader flaunting his immorality with the Midianite princess], and he arose from the midst of the congregation, taking a javelin in his hand. He came after the man of Israel to the tent, and he pierced both of them - the man of Israel and the woman, through her stomach; and the plague was stopped from the Children of Israel." (Numbers 25:8)
Now, there is much discussion regarding Pinchas' halachic authority to kill these two people - one, a leader of Israel; the other, a Midianite princess. To be sure, had he asked a Beit Din (a rabbinic court), they would have forbidden him to kill them: cohabiting in public is not a sin that carries a death penalty by court of law. More than that, had Zimri son of Salu, the Israelite leader in question, killed Pinchas in self-defence, he would have been justified in court.
But it was a desperate situation, with Pinchas acting purely for the sake of Heaven; God Himself justified Pinchas. The Targum Yonatan (Numbers 25:8) synthesises several Midrashic sources:
"Twelve miracles were wrought for Pinchas.... The first miracle was that he should have separated them but they remained together; the second miracle was that their mouths were sealed up and they could not shout, because had they shouted they would have been rescued; the third miracle was that when he aimed his javelin he pierced them together, both in their sexual organs; the fourth miracle was that the javelin remained firm in the wound that it had made; the fifth miracle was that when he lifted them high, the lintel [of the tent-entrance] was elevated so he could carry them out; the sixth miracle was that he carried them throughout the Israelite camp, six parsot [about It was a desperate situation, with Pinchas acting purely for the sake of Heaven. 16 miles/26 km] without getting tired; the seventh miracle was that he carried them aloft in his right hand [his fighting hand, which should have left him vulnerable] in the sight of all his relatives, and they were unable to harm him; the eighth miracle was that the wooden handle of the javelin was strengthened and did not break under the weight; the ninth miracle was that the blade became precisely the length of them both and did not exit; the tenth miracle was that an angel came and switched them around, putting the woman beneath and the man above, so that the whole House of Israel would see their disgrace; the eleventh miracle was that they were preserved alive for as long as it took him to parade them throughout the camp, so that no kohen's tent would contract the ritual uncleanness of a dead body; the twelfth miracle was that their blood congealed and did not drip upon him when he carried them through the camp."
Under these peculiar circumstances, Pinchas had to act alone, without guidance, on a spur-of-the-moment decision. And he also had to have his action ratified in public by God Himself.
By acting as he did when he did, Pinchas prevented the plague spreading any further - that is, he saved the rest of the nation from death; this was the reason that he was granted the covenant of eternal Kehunah, the covenant of peace. It was surely a terribly demoralising experience to live through: after winning military victory in wars over the king of Arad, the Amorites and Bashan (Chapter 21), and spiritual victory over Balak and Balaam, now to have 24,000 dead in a plague.
But two facts stand out. One is that this was the last disaster that would befall Israel in the desert. Apart from Moshe himself, no Jew would die before entering the Land of Israel just several weeks later. Though they did not yet know it, those who survived this tragedy were on the verge of redemption; they would see no more death before arriving in Israel.
And the other is that in spite of all, national life continued without a break. God immediately told Moshe to publicly appoint Joshua as his successor (27:18-23), and immediately after that continued by giving the mitzvot of sacrifices (Chapter 28) and of the Festivals (Chapter 29).
Leaders of Israel who flaunt their immorality, who glorify in their love of enemy nations and the enemy nations' love for them, can indeed bring tragedy on Israel. They do indeed demoralise the entire nation.
But we, standing at the very threshold of redemption, can never know what will happen between now and the final deliverance. Maybe, indeed, this is the last tragedy that we will have to undergo; maybe, indeed, we will see no more death until the final Redemption comes.
But in any event, the Jewish response to any bad situation, no matter how gloomy, no matter how demoralising, is to combat evil and evil-doers, even - no, especially - when those evil-doers are leaders of Israel. And, even in the gloomiest of circumstances, to continue to fulfil the mitzvot.