We ended last week’s parasha with the Jewish nation crying as quasi-leaders sinned publicly with Midianite women, who had come into our camp at the Moabites’ behest.
We would have no rest from these Midianites, nor from their Moabite agitators. God ultimately would warn us to avoid such nations utterly — not even to wish Moabites or Ammonites well (Devarim 23:7).
The Moabites and Ammonites stemmed from Lot, Avraham’s nephew. The Midianites were our “cousins,” descended directly from Avraham and Keturah, whom Rabbi Yehudah identifies as Hagar, mother of Yishmael. Although Yitro, high priest of Midian, had proved himself a friend, opening his home to Moshe and even giving his daughter Tziporah to be Moshe’s wife, Yitro had been unique — a theological dissident who alienated his people by rejecting their idolatry. Brazen locals brutalized his daughters at the well.
Our problems with our “cousins” among the nomadic Midianites, the Ammonites and the Moabites continued through the generations. In the Age of Judges, Ehud had to save us from Moav, Gideon saved us from Midianite persecution, and Yiftach later saved us from Ammon. Thus it continued through the era of the Kings: Shaul’s wars with Moav and Ammon (I Shmuel 14:47), David’s (II Shmuel 8:2-3, 23:20) and through the books of Kings. There was no simple Peace Now plan or clever Oslo accord that could solve the interminable and insoluble problem defining Jewish destiny from time immemorial: being surrounded by “cousins” sworn to uproot Jews from Israel.
We saw in last week’s parasha that standing around, crying and wringing hands solved nothing. It never does. Most people knew right from wrong but maybe did not know what to do or lacked the courage to get involved. In the face of national paralysis, Pinchas emerged and, seeing catastrophe consume the camp, acted boldly. For that courage, he was awarded an eternal covenant of the Kehunah (priesthood).
We all see the need for action in the face of compromised Torah values — assimilation, self-hating Jews joining flotillas to Gaza and the like. And we cry. Very few emerge to lead. Yet the Jewish leader’s role often is difficult. Jewish history is replete with stories of rabbis standing alone when the demand of the hour fell on their shoulders, while others buried their heads, grateful for his presence, but remaining cowardly silent, afraid to lose friends or business associates.
The Chofetz Chaim shares his father’s parable of a merchant who is about to travel the seas in search of wealth. He asks others to accompany him, but only one man accepts his offer. They depart, and no one hears from them again until years later, when they both return with precious gems, wealth beyond description. From that day forward, others live with regret that they had not journeyed, too.
Although some rabbinic families are multi-generational, the American rabbinate is not dynastic. Most everyone has the opportunity to attain Torah greatness. In Bereshit 46, Dan numbers only one son (and hard of hearing, at that) compared to Binyamin’s 10. But by this week’s parasha Binyamin numbers 45,600 while Dan numbers 64,400 (Numbers 26:41-43). Yesterday’s numbers are not today’s. Today’s realities are not tomorrow’s. Yeshiva doors are open to new, future leaders. Moses did not become a leader until he was 80. How old are you?
Rabbi Elazar says that Pinchas actually had not been designated a Kohen until he killed Zimri. Yet the “late-blooming” Pinchas ultimately is progenitor of the Kohen Gadol dynasty. He merited greatness because he opted to risk life, not merely to wring hands. By acting, he brought atonement to the entire Jewish people. Sforno explains that God forgave because at least they did not criticize Pinchas after he arose.
He saved the nation even though, as Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch observes, he was but one man, performing but one deed. As Rav Hirsch writes, a true peace advocate fights against the enemies of truth. Cynics, claiming the mantle of “peace-loving,” may condemn him as “Disturber of the Peace — dividing the community.” It is the paradox of history that peace often comes only when — amid hand wringing — the courageous few risk their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Their risks are great, but they are the people of spirit to whom we owe all. In the end, we tell them, “We were behind you all along.” And it is true.