This week’s Torah portion was named for Pinchas, the hero whose swift and decisive actions in last week’s portion brought an end to a most unfortunate saga. Surpri-singly, though, he was not the recipient of his nation’s gratitude and congratulatory medals. Instead he was the object of much derision.
The portion introduces him as “Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron” (Numbers 25:10). Why, the Talmud asks, does God refer to Pinchas here as the grandson of Aaron, since his lineage already was mentioned? Because the tribes of Israel were mocking him: “Have you seen this son of the fattener, whose mother’s father [Jethro] fattened calves for idolatrous sacrifices, and now he goes and kills a prince in Israel?” Thus God traces Pinchas’ lineage to Aaron, who was known for his kind disposition (Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b).
One wonders, though — what motivated the tribes to ridicule Pinchas? He had courageously saved the Jewish people from civil war, halted a terrible plague that claimed some 24,000 lives, and subsequently was awarded a most noble prize, “God’s peace prize.”
Perhaps an answer can be found in a story from Maimonides (Rambam), the great 12th-century rabbi, philosopher and royal physician of Saladin Sultan of Egypt. One of the sultan’s other advisers was quite jealous of Rambam’s close relationship to the ruler and schemed to discredit the rabbi.
He told the sultan that Rambam was not being truthful with his highness and therefore wished to challenge him in a debate. It centered on a longstanding dispute between Rambam and the other philosophers of his time on the Jewish view of “nature vs. nurture” and whether an animal can be trained to behave as a human.
Rambam maintained that only human beings truly have free choice and thus the ability to overcome innate character flaws, while an animal is a creature of instinct and can never be trained to be humanlike. The adviser challenged this position, claiming that Rambam knew it to be false.
The jealous adviser, who happened to be a gifted animal trainer, set a date when he would have a cat serve a dinner to the sultan and his guests. Of course, Rambam was invited to the dinner, where he observed the proceedings with a bemused smile.
The guests were brought into the royal dining hall. Sure enough, a cat walking on his hind legs began to serve the guests. As the cat approached the table holding a tray in its paws, Rambam removed a small box from his pocket, lifted the lid and out sprang a mouse! Instantly the cat dropped the food on the royal patrons while dropping to all fours and chasing the mouse, leaving a royal mess.
There are those who suggest that man is driven at his core by selfishness, ego and lust and is no more than a masquerading beast. The good in him is superimposed and external and is the result of nurture, not nature.
Judaism, however, is far more optimistic. In one of its most transcendent teachings, the Bible states that “God created man in His image.” Since God is inherently good and kind, it implies, so is the species God created called humankind. Our animalistic tendencies are superimposed. This explains the reaction to Pinchas, for few professions are as cruel and inhumane as the fattening of calves for slaughter.
When Pinchas slew Zimri, many said: “Look at this holy zealot! He acts as if motivated by the desire to avenge the honor of God and save the people, but in truth he has merely found a holy outlet for his cruel and violent nature. After all, it’s in his blood — just look at his maternal grandfather.” So God described him as the grandson of Aaron to attest that in character and temperament, he actually took after his compassionate and peace-loving paternal grandfather.
Interestingly, years later Pinchas returns as Elijah the Prophet whose final mission will be to herald the coming of the Messiah. For it is then that all humankind will be transformed to realize our true essence as divine beings, when the entire world will be permeated with the knowledge and awareness of God as the water covers the sea.
Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi is the spiritual leader of Orthodox Congregation Chevra Thilim in San Francisco. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.