We are a fortunate people. If one were to ask “Who is the greatest spiritual hero in Jewish history?” many names would come to mind. Some would suggest one of the Avot or Imahot. Others might answer King David, or one of the prophets. Most people, however, would probably choose Moshe Rabbeinu.
Moshe’s amazing and multifold accomplishments are legendary, his leadership extraordinary, his intellect nearly unparalleled. The level of nevuah (prophecy) he achieved was above that of any other prophet. His ability to commune with Hashem is unequaled in the history of our people. The Torah teaches: “There never arose another prophet amongst the Jewish people like Moshe, to whom Hashem revealed Himself face to face.” (Devarim 34:10, per Onkelos).
Rabbi Baruch ha-Levi Epstein zt”l, known as the Torah Temimah, explains that there was one area, however, in which Moshe was not able to achieve the highest heights. Instead, as clearly stated in our parsha, it was Pinchas ha-Kohen who accomplished a goal that eluded even Moshe Rabbeinu:
“ ‘Behold, I [Hashem] give to him my Covenant of Peace’ (Bamidbar 25:12). … At first glance, it is difficult to understand why Pinchas merited this reward even more than Moshe Rabbeinu, since we find numerous times wherein [through Moshe’s efforts] Hashem ‘forgot’ His anger against the Jewish people, such as in the instances of the Golden Calf and the Spies.”
After raising this fundamental issue, Rav Epstein continues his analysis of why Pinchas, not Moshe, was deserving of the Covenant of Peace:
“But the matter should, however, be explained as follows: We see from this that there was a fundamental difference between Moshe’s and Pinchas’s ability to remove Hashem’s anger [from upon the Jewish people]. Moshe was able to remove Hashem’s anger solely for a limited time, yet there remained, so to speak, in Hashem’s heart a grievance against the Jewish people, just as we find in the instances of the Golden Calf … and the Spies. Peace such as this cannot be called true and absolute peace. The removal of Hashem’s anger in regards to Pinchas, however, was a complete and total removal of anger [that continues to last]. Therefore, Pinchas merited the just reward [of this Covenant of Peace]. “
In sum, Pinchas was able to effectuate a total and permanent peace between Hashem and His people, devoid of any future recriminations and punishments. This is something that escaped even Moshe Rabbeinu.
The question that still remains, however, is “Why is there a difference between them?”
I believe the Torah provides us with an answer this question in the phrase, “When he [Pinchas] displayed the anger that I [Hashem] should have displayed,” (Bamidbar 25:11, translation per Rashi). Pinchas acted as Hashem’s messenger in expressing His legitimate anger. He channeled Hashem’s fury in response to the immorality and idol worship in which many of the men were engaged. In this sense, Pinchas was a zealot who was totally devoted to Hashem. His complete being merged with Hashem’s righteous anger in his desire to execute the Almighty’s will.
In stark contrast to Pinchas, Moshe Rabbeinu never became angry — either on a personal level, or in the service of Hashem. Although the Torah states in Parashat Korach regarding the temerity of Datan and Aviram, “And Moshe became very upset” (Bamidbar 16:15, per Rashi), he never became angry — even in the positive sense of Pinchas’ anger.
This, perhaps, is as it should be. Anger, in nearly all instances, is considered by Chazal (our Sages) to be tantamount to avodah zarah, since in the heat of anger a person cannot focus upon Hashem, Torah, or mitzvot. Instead, such an individual is entirely consumed by emotion, and becomes irrational. Clearly, then, one of the worst characteristics an authentic leader of klal Yisrael can have is that of anger. Little wonder, then, that Moshe neither had the personality trait of anger, nor did he become angry — even when it was warranted in the service of Hashem.
Paradoxically, Pinchas received the Brit Shalom after having brought about total peace between Hashem and klal Yisrael precisely because of the righteous anger he expressed on behalf of the Almighty. In this way, he served as a protective force and bridged the gaping chasm between the Jewish people and the Creator, and guarded His holy Torah and mitzvot. As spiritually heroic as Pinchas’ actions were, however, it must be stressed that they were permissible solely at that time and may never be repeated.
With Hashem’s help, may we strive to emulate Pinchas’ love and devotion to the Holy One blessed be He, and may we ever dedicate ourselves to His Torah and mitzvot.