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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


He turned back My wrath from upon Bnei Yisrael. (25:11)

The word heishiv, turned back, seems a bit misplaced. It would make more of an impact to use the word heisir, removed. What is the meaning of "turn back"? In his Be'er Moshe, the Ozrover Rebbe, zl, explains that with his act of zealousness, Pinchas achieved two objectives: first, he prevented the Middas Ha'Din, Attribute of Strict Justice, from destroying Klal Yisrael; then, he was able to turn it around and have it act against the Midyanites. This is the meaning of "turning back My wrath." That which would have been meted out against the Jews was turned against their aggressors, the Midyanites.

A similar scenario took place when the Jews stood at the banks of the Red Sea. Chazal relate that Satan appeared to condemn the Jews before the Almighty, "Hashem, did not the Jews worship idols in Egypt? Yet, You are about to perform miracles for them." When the Sar, guardian angel of the sea, heard this critique, he became angry and wanted to drown the Jews. Immediately, Hashem Yisborach replied, "Fool! Did they serve idols of their own volition? No! They worshipped as a result of the terrible labor to which they were subjected. They became depressed and lost their minds. Theirs was not intentional worship. They had no control over themselves. How can you judge inadvertent action the same as intentional, or compare forced activity with willful action?"

When the Prince of the Sea heard this, his anger was "rerouted" from Klal Yisrael and focused instead, on the Egyptians. This is the meaning of Vayashuvu hamayim al Mitzrayim, "And the water will go back upon Egypt" (Shemos 14:26). The Middas HaDin was not eradicated. It was simply rerouted against those who deserved its punishment.

When he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Bnei Yisrael in My vengeance. (25:11)

Two people are embroiled in a controversy. What should the reaction of the innocent bystander be? The immediate response would be to "mind my own business…it is none of my concern." We would shrug our shoulders and continue on, refraining from involvement in something that does not directly concern us. It is best to remain neutral, to be flexible and conciliatory for fear that, by entering into the fray, we will only exacerbate the fires of dispute and blow the entire controversy out of proportion.

We have two such precedents in the Torah, ironically from a grandfather and his grandson. In this week's parsha, the Nasi, Prince, of Shevet Shimon takes it upon himself to dispute Moshe Rabbeinu, thereby impugning Klal Yisrael's leadership. Zimri, the Nasi, could have had any number of reasons for this dastardly act of rebellion. Surely, the innocent bystander had no idea why Zimri was acting in this manner. One thing was certain; he was transgressing the prohibition against cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman, for which the halachah is clear: kana'in pogiin bo, "zealous ones should kill him." The question is: Who was prepared to accept the mantle of kanai? It was much easier to do what everybody was doing, burying their collective heads and minding their own business. This was a dispute between Zimri and Moshe. Why get involved?

Pinchas' grandfather, Aharon HaKohen, took a different approach to dealing with the dissidents who created the Golden Calf. He complied with their wishes and, in an effort that could be characterized as damage control, helped them celebrate their new 'leadership." Clearly, not everything is as it appears. Aharon acted according to his own Daas Torah, wisdom of the Torah, which he felt demanded his response. Likewise, Pinchas was executing Daas Torah as he perceived it. The circumstances were different, and each one acted in what he felt was the appropriate manner. Now, let us explain their actions, so that we may learn from their standards.

Pinchas was acutely aware that the kanai treads a dangerous path. He walks a line that distinguishes between an act of violence that can be interpreted as a mitzvah, and one that can be labeled as wanton murder. What defines his action is his intent. Why, and for whom, he is acting defines the catalyst of his actions. The fact that Hashem promised Pinchas bris shalom, a covenant of peace, indicates how Hashem viewed Pinchas' act. He considered it an act of boundless love, of trying to repair the breach created in Klal Yisrael by Zimri's immoral cohabitation. Zimri created rebellion; Pinchas attempted to quell its effect in order to return the Jewish People back to Hashem.

We live in a time of great pashranus, compromise, in which leaders - either out of moral weakness or irresponsibility - act injudicially to protect their position, often at the expense of Klal Yisrael's dignity. This can result in a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem's Name. Refusing to back down and concede their unmitigated error and violation of halachah, some leaders justify accepting invitations to speak and attend gatherings where no Jew belongs, claiming that they are acting for the greater good. This spiritual hypocrisy reflects a moral bankruptcy very much like what Chazal refer to as the one who is oseh maaseh Zimri, u'mevakeish, s'char k'Pinchas, "He acts like Zimri and demands reward like Pinchas."

We now turn to Aharon, who seemed to "give away the ship," capitulating to the demands of the eirev rav, mixed multitude. Here again, we see how important it is not to take things at face value and not to accept everything as it appears. This is where Chazal's interpretation of a situation transforms Aharon's act of submission from acquiescence and cowardice to an exalted, unparalleled act of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice.

The Chasam Sofer, zl, cites the Ramban, who writes that Aharon knew that his act of submission was a great sin that would ultimately cost him his portion in Olam Habbah, World to Come. He acted, nonetheless, because he knew that if the Jews killed him, they would be guilty of killing a Kohen and Navi on the same day, which was an unpardonable transgression. Had they succeeded in this grave double sin, Klal Yisrael would have been finished. Knowing this, Aharon acted with mesiras nefesh: "Better I should lose my share in eternity than Klal Yisrael be eternally ostracized." Aharon's love for the Jewish People was unparalleled. His "compromise" was something which he felt had to be done to save the nation - even at his own eternal expense. His grandson, Pinchas, acted similarly, putting his mortal life in danger in order to prevent Klal Yisrael from falling into the unforgivable sin of chillul Hashem. Things are just not always what they seem to be.

Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. (25:12)

When one ponders the incident of Pinchas and Zimri, it seems strange. The Jewish People were going astray, gravitating towards the Midyanite women. Zimri, the Prince of the tribe of Shimon, brazenly took Cosbi, a pagan princess, and publicly flaunted his relationship with her. Pinchas grabbed a spear and killed them both. The plague that had been raging in the Jewish camp ceased at once. Unquestionably, Pinchas' act of zealous retribution was noble, courageous and, clearly, effective. Why does Hashem consider it an act of peace? Why did Pinchas merit two rewards: the covenant of peace and the Priesthood? The nature of neither one seems to be consistent with his act of vengeance.

Shalom, peace, is also a derivative of shleimus, completeness. Pinchas performed his brave act at great personal risk to himself, reestablishing and reaffirming the completeness of the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. Klal Yisrael severed the relationship with Him by desecrating His Name and through their lack of fidelity to Him. Pinchas came along and picked up the pieces, mending them and putting them back into place. The Bostoner Rebbe, Shlita, asserts that this is why, during Yehoshua's tenure as leader of Klal Yisrael, Pinchas became the Kohen Gadol. The most basic and remarkable function of the Kohen is to take a sinner who is shattered by all that sin is apt to destroy and offer his Korban Chatas, Sin-offering, on the Mizbayach to bring atonement for him. By doing this, the Kohen catalyzes the ultimate tikkun, repair, to the bond between man and Hashem that had been shattered by the sin.

The Rebbe explains that Pinchas' ability to offer sacrifices for others was the result of his willingness to sacrifice for himself. Originally, it had been assumed that, since Pinchas had been born before Kehunah became hereditary, he was ineligible. When he passed the test of kanaus, zealous devotion to Hashem, he revealed the true depths of his soul. Thus, he achieved enduring greatness. The greatest test that one must be able to pass is the test of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrifice. How much is one willing to sacrifice? How far is he willing to go? In order to promote shleimus, one must himself be a shaleim. He must exhibit an uncompromising commitment to Hashem before he is able to inspire others.

Mesiras nefesh for mitzvos is measured individually. What might be considered a sacrifice for one person is a "walk in the park" for another. It all depends on the person and the circumstances. The Bostoner Rebbe relates an inspiring story about a young Jewish professional who became frum, observant, while on a trip to Eretz Yisrael. He even extended his visit, so that he could spend some time studying in the Holy Land. When he returned to the States, he shared his news with a young woman, a lawyer by profession, whom he had been seeing seriously. She was very supportive of his new-found commitment. There was one problem, however. She was not Jewish, and pursuing this relationship just did not sit well with frumkeit.

The young woman started spending time in a young kollel community, and she became friends with many of its members. She soon began to observe mitzvos, progressing nicely. Then the questions began in earnest. Could she convert? Would her conversion mean anything if it had been motivated in part by her relationship with the young man whom she was still dating? How committed was she to Yiddishkeit?

The Rebbe met a number of times with the young lady, but it remained difficult to sort out the various influences on-- and motives for-- her conversion. How sincere was she? The Rebbe decided upon the following test: "We will move forward with the conversion, but if the bais din, court, that determines the conversion issues a decision that you and the young man must break up, then you will have to separate completely before they will convert you," the Rebbe said.

The young lady was terribly distraught, and she broke down in bitter weeping. The Rebbe had said that an immediate answer was not necessary. She could go home and give it some thought, and return later with her decision. When she returned, she asked again if there were any way the Rebbe could come up with a dispensation to permit the marriage. The Rebbe answered that there was not. In order for her to be converted, she would have to completely sever her relationship, if the Beis Din so ruled. It must be a firm and final agreement. She returned the next day and, amid tears, affirmed her desire to become a Jewess and to adhere to whatever decision the bais din would render.

The Rebbe told her to return that evening with the young man. When they were settled, the Rebbe said, "You have passed the test. I wanted to see how firm your commitment to Judaism is. You will be converted, and you may get married to each other." They were, of course, overjoyed. After they calmed down a bit, the young man turned to his fianc?e and said, "Now we can cancel that reservation." He explained to the Rebbe that they had originally traveled to Boston together by car, and, since there was a distinct possibility that they might not be able to see each other again, they had made reservations for him to return by plane - alone! This demonstrated their true level of commitment. Conversion was her primary goal. Her devotion to Yiddishkeit was unequivocal and uncompromising. They continue to be happily married, religiously committed, and active and contributing members of their observant community.

Therefore say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. (25:12)

Pinchas performed a single act that earned him eternal merit: he zealously slew Zimri and Cosbi, halting the plague that was mortally destroying the Jewish People, and sanctifying Hashem's Name through his public demonstration of impassioned devotion. Opportunities crop up throughout life in which we are presented with a chance to achieve distinction or earn eternal merit, and we let these auspicious moments go by. Why? We either do not realize their significance, or we are too lazy to act. We will return and do it later. Regrettably, later is too late. Those individuals who "made it" never wasted an opportunity, never ignored a chance to achieve. Who knows what this moment could bring? They seized the moment; they grabbed the opportunity, while the rest of the people just stood there - watching.

Horav Sholom Meir Wallach, Shlita, relates the story of the American rabbi who visited Eretz Yisrael, landing on Erev Shabbos. Hot, tired and very thirsty, he sought a cold drink. Being a distinguished rav meant that he could not stand in the middle of the street drinking a can of soda. He noticed a grocery store, went in and asked for a cold drink. The proprietor, an elderly Jew who was clearly not a native born Israeli, asked, "What time is it?" The rabbi looked at his watch and said, "Twenty minutes to twelve." "Good," replied the storekeeper, "Then I can serve you. You see, I do not serve anyone on Erev Shabbos past chatzos, midday."

Meeting such an interesting person was inspirational, and the rabbi initiated a conversation with him. In the ensuing conversation, the man revealed that he had originally been a butcher in a small town in Russia. He then emigrated to Eretz Yisrael and became a storekeeper. He was an upstanding, G-d-fearing Jew, who led a simple life. He said that in his town there had been two young boys, both children of poor families, who had a great desire to study Torah and who exhibited an equal potential for achieving distinction in it. The butcher took it upon himself to send them to yeshivah, and he paid their tuition and expenses. He said, "I do not remember the name of the second one, but one of them was called Arele. I sent them to Slabodka. I have no clue what became of them."

When the rabbi heard this story, he immediately equated the name of the small town, Svislovitch, Russia, with Slabodka and the name Arele, and he deduced that the young boy was none other than the gadol hador, pre-eminent Torah leader of the generation, Horav Aharon Kotler, zl. He trembled with excitement and exclaimed to the storekeeper, "Do you know whom you sent to yeshivah? The gadol hador, Rav Aharon Kotler! Your good deed transformed the spiritual panorama of Torah in America. Imagine what your pennies achieved!"

The rabbi returned to the states and related the episode to his rebbe, the venerable Rosh Yeshivah, Horav Yaakov Kamenetzky, zl. "Rebbe, see what one well-meaning person can accomplish? He was in the right place at the right time and he acted upon the opportunity," the rabbi excitingly declared. Rav Yaakov replied, "Yes, I believe that one can change an entire world with good intentions and well-thought out action. The story is true, because, as you know, I also come from Svislovitch, and I was the other boy whom he sent to Slabodka."

Can anyone imagine the power of this story? This simple butcher was responsible for the making of not one gadol, but two gedolei hador! And it cost him very little. Why? Because he saw a need. He took an interest, he cared, and he did something about it. He did not just stand there thinking to himself, "What will people say? Let me think about it. Let us talk tomorrow." He did not procrastinate. He acted - just like Pinchas. It does not require much, but it does take initiative!

Moshe spoke to Hashem, saying, "May Hashem G-d of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the assembly, who shall go out before them and come in before them… Hashem said… "Take to yourself, Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit. (27:15,16,18)

Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to select a successor to replace him, an individual who would lead the people and take them into Eretz Yisrael. Rashi says that, in his request, Moshe asked Hashem, "Answer me if You will appoint a leader for them." This sounds like more of a demand than a request. What is Moshe implying with this statement? Horav Matisyahu Solomon, Shlita, cites the Maharal m'Prague, who writes in his Gur Arye, that "Moshe was in extreme emotional pain over the chance that the Jews would not have a leader." In other words, the man who led the nascent nation during its first forty years was acutely aware how much they needed the right leadership. His love for the people was so strong; his empathy so powerful; his bond to them so inextricably solid that he could not accept for a moment that they might be left leaderless. Without any compunction, he expressed his strong emotional plea to Hashem, "Oy! What will be with Klal Yisrael? Please answer me."

Rav Matisyahu notes that the expression Elokei ha'ruchos, G-d of the spirits, is used only twice in the Torah: here, in our parsha, and previously when Moshe entreated Hashem on behalf of Klal Yisrael during the Korach debacle. "G-d of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and You be angry with the entire assembly" (Bamidbar 16:22). As Hashem was about to punish those who had rebelled against Him, Moshe, the quintessential leader, said to Hashem, "Almighty, Only You know the unique and singular thought process of each individual. Only You know who sinned maliciously with intent to impugn and defy Divine leadership, and who was just a follower, caught up in the maelstrom of events, with no backbone to stand up for what is true and right. Their punishments should not be similar. The individual who sins out of weakness should be treated differently than he who acts out of malevolence."

As the people stood at the threshold of a new era, as Moshe was about to take leave of the nation he had shepherded for forty years, he once again said to Hashem, "Only You, Almighty, can discern who should be the next leader of the Jewish People. Only Hashem knows what is going on in the recesses of the hearts and minds of each person: Appoint a leader over the people who will be tolerant of each individual person according to his own singular way of thinking."

Moshe was proficient in chochmas ha'partzuf, the wisdom of viewing one's countenance. He was able to look at someone and delve into his psyche, discerning his essence, his ethical, moral and spiritual persona and character. He chose dayanim, judges, for the people based on what he "saw" concerning their inner personalities. Although Moshe was eminently capable of personally leading the people, knowing each one's unique character, he was unable to determine who among the Jewish nation was capable of being his successor. Ultimately, Yehoshua, Moshe's close talmid muvhak, primary student, was selected by Hashem to be the next leader of the Jewish People. Certainly, Moshe knew Yehoshua, his character and qualities, better than anyone. Yet, his name eluded Moshe when he sought a successor. Why? Did Moshe not know that Yehoshua would be able to deal with each individual Jew on their own distinct level?

In order to explain this anomaly, Rav Matisyahu cites the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna and the Alter, zl, m'Novordok in his Madreigas Ha'Adam, who define the qualities integral to a Torah leader. In Moshe's request, he asked for someone "who shall go out before them and come in before them." The Gra explains that Moshe asked Hashem to appoint an individual who possessed two contradictory attributes. "Who shall go out before them" is a reference to he who is strong of character, who neither wavers nor fears any man or his opinion. He does what should be done and acts accordingly, not seeking popularity, but rather focusing on the truth without embellishment. "And who shall come in before them" denotes an individual who is soft and sensitive, caring and kindhearted, who listens to everyone and is acutely aware of and attuned to the needs of each individual. He asks; he consults; he listens; he confers; and he is involved in dialogue. Initially, these two sets of qualities are anathema to one another. Moshe knew no one among the Jewish People who fit this tall order. He knew individuals who possessed one of these virtues, but not both, working in sync, complementing one another.

Hashem replied to Moshe, "Take to yourself Yehoshua bin Nun, a man in whom there is spirit." This means, explains the Madreigas Ha'Adam, that he possessed a spirit which reigns over himself. Only someone who is in complete control of himself, his inclinations, tendencies, and nature, can lead a nation. If he can successfully navigate and prevail over the issues and challenges that confront him in his personal life, he is worthy of leading Klal Yisrael. If he is, however, capricious, if he vacillates back and forth without arriving at a definite decision, if he is fickle, he cannot lead. He will fall prey to pressure and bend with flattery or bribery.

Moshe knew all there was to know about Yehoshua. Yet, he did not see him as his successor. Yehoshua was a naar lo yamish mitoch ha'ohel, "a lad, (who) would not depart from within the tent of Torah study" (Shemos 33:11). He was diligent and persevering, leaving the bais medrash only when it was absolutely necessary. He just did not manifest any of the qualities inherent in a leader. Hashem taught Moshe a powerful and timeless lesson, one that has been proven regularly throughout history. The Torah leaders of Klal Yisrael are to be found in the bais medrash, doing nothing else but learning the sacred Torah. When the need arises and they are summoned to the fore, they will be ready. The Jewish leader is one who rules over himself - then he can govern and guide others. The "degree" for Torah leadership is issued only in the bais medrash.

Rav Matisyahu expressed this idea in his eulogy for Horav Elazar M. Shach, zl, who was the undisputed gadol hador, leader of his generation. Until the age of seventy years old, he did nothing but study diligently in the bais medrash, teaching and guiding students, himself absorbed totally in the profundities of Torah dialectic. He knew nothing about the outside world. When the call to lead came, however, he was there, with an uncanny and unparalleled ability to respond to each Jew according to his individual need. He feared no one, but was sensitive to everyone. This is gadlus. This is true Torah leadership.

Va'ani Tefillah

Hashem shomer es geirim, yasom v'almanah ye'oded. Hashem will protect the stranger, and He will give the orphan and the widow strength to endure.

Horav Shimon Schwab, zl, notes that these three terms - ger, yasom and almanah--which are often used throughout Tanach, serve as an allegory for three types of people. Ger refers to the baal teshuvah, the Jew who returned to a life of religious observance. He is the ger ha'gar b'sochechem, 'The stranger who lives among you" (Vayikra 16:19). He has only been living among the Jewish People, but is not really involved in their religious lifestyle. Now, after his teshuvah, he is like a ger, someone who has been regenerated, a neophyte believer. Next is the yasom, orphan, which is an allegory for the tinok she'nishbah, child who has been taken captive, one who never had a father or anyone else to teach him Torah. He has literally been orphaned from mitzvos. He is completely clueless, a situation that applies to so many of our generation. Last, almanah is a reference to a generation that has been left bereft of its leadership. The individuals of this generation have died. Our only comfort is that we are truly never alone. We are never left bereft of Hashem. As the Navi Yirmiyahu says (Yirmiyahu 51:5), ki lo alman Yisrael v'Yehudah m'Elokav, "For Yisrael is not widowed, nor is Yehudah, from his G-d." To paraphrase Rav Schwab, "In our time, the number of gedolei Yisrael who can pasken a sheilah, render a halachic judgment that is acceptable by the entire Jewish world, can be counted on less than the fingers of one hand, and most of them are aged."

The last generation before the advent of Moshiach is called almanah. Thus, the pasuk teaches us that in the generation just preceding the geulah, redemption, we will be a nation comprised of these three aspects: baalei teshuvah, tinokos she'nishbah, and people bereft of leaders. It is these individuals who will be among those righteous whom Hashem loves and will protect. They will be given the strength to endure and experience the new world order.

l'zechar nishmas
R' Yissachar Dov ben HaRav Yisrael a"h
niftar 7 Av 5745

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