Pinchas - a majority of one (Numbers 25:10-30:1)
© 2016 S.H. Parker

We are all familiar with sedra Pinchas. Every חג (holiday), we read from the list of the sacrifices for the holiday. Pinchas also contains two censuses (one of Israel, one of the Levites, usual stuff), the method of apportioning the land, Zelophehad''s daughters and the smicha of Joshua. All of these are in the endless detail typical of Priestly source.

Lost in these endless Levitical lists is a very interesting passage. If you're thinking that the interesting passage is Zelophehad''s daughters, you'd be wrong ("but that's another story"). The passage I find interesting is:

25:10 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:   יְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
11 Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.   פִּֽינְחָ֨ס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֜ר בֶּן־אַֽהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֗ן הֵשִׁ֤יב אֶת־חֲמָתִי֙ מֵעַ֣ל בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּקַנְא֥וֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִ֖י בְּתוֹכָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־כִלִּ֥יתִי אֶת־בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בְּקִנְאָתִֽי
12 Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.   יבלָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִֽנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם
13 It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel."   יגוְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַֽחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹהָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

At the end of last week's action packed episode, Balak, is the apostasy of Israel at Baal Peor.

We learn: "Zimri the son of Salu, the prince of the Simeonite paternal house" (Lev. 25:14) [note the extremely unusual phrasing here] brought out a Midianite woman "before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel (Lev. 24:6) ... Cozbi the daughter of Zur, a national leader of a paternal house in Midian" (25:15) and, with no need to read between the lines, shtupped her right in front of everyone (the chamber (הַקֻּבָּה) referred to is the ohel moed, the tent of meeting, see 25:6, noting that public fornication is an ancient assertion of political power, especially when it involves leaders/leadership - is Zimri "shtupping for the priesthood?").

Everyone just stands around, including the normally zealous Levites. Finally, "Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand" (Lev. 25:7). So while everyone stands around with their thumbs in their ... ears, Pinchas takes matters and spear in hand and deals with the two of them.

, in the face of a (very) silent majority ignores the implicit peer pressure and he acts. A majority of one, he is rewarded with the priesthood.

What's so interesting about this? Pinchas sees an avera (sin), a very public avera, and deals with it in a totally appropriate way, given the zeitgeist of the times. He acts entirely alone and this is just the sort of thing we should expect. The real question is why no one else acted. This seems to be one of the central lessons of Torah: see what is right, do what is right (Bilaam, last week, was chastised for violating this very precept - in Pesachim 50b we learn to concern ourselves with doing good deeds, regardless of our motivation in doing them).

What is interesting is that the Rabbis, starting with the Tannaim, the very first Rabbis (late first century), don't agree with the idea of an individual acting in opposition to the majority. And, to this day, the foundation of this disagreement is the root of their claims to authority, especially in haredi communities.

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, known as Eliezer ha-Gadol (Eliezer the Great), or simply Rabbi Eliezer, is the key figure in this gemarrah (Baba Metzia 59a-b):

We learn: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile, Rav Eliezer declared it clean but the Sages declared it unclean; this was the oven of 'Aknai' [an oven consisting of tiles separated by sand, but externally plastered with cement to make a single object]. Why "'Aknai?" Said Rav Judah in Samuel's name: [this means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake and proved it unclean. It has been taught: On that day Rav Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument but they did not accept them. [Finally] He Said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" Whereupon the carob tree was uprooted a hundred cubits out of its place; others say four hundred cubits. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted. Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let that stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. "Proof cannot be brought from a stream of water," they rejoined. Again he urged: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it," whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But Rav Joshua rebuked them, saying: "When sages are engaged in a halachic dispute, what right have you to interfere?" Hence they did not fall in honor of Rav Joshua, neither did they resume the upright [position], in honor of Rav Eliezer; and they are still standing so inclined. Again he said to them: "If the halachah agrees with me, let the Heavens themselves prove it!" Whereupon a Heavenly Voice [lit. daughter of a voice; i.e., God directly] called out: 'Why do you dispute Rav Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!'" But Rav Joshua arose and exclaimed: "It [Torah] is not in heaven." [Devarim 30:12] What did he mean by this? Said Rav Jeremiah: [He meant] That the Torah had already been given [to man] at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice[except when we do] because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, "After the majority must one incline." [where Torah says this, I don't know; perhaps this passage has not survived? Though I do know Torah says "You will not run after a multitude to do evil."]

How does God react to this outright reject of His word? The gemarrah continues:

Rav Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time?  He laughed, saying, "My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me."

And what became of ben Hyrcanus? The story continues:

It was said: On that day all objects which Rav Eliezer had declared clean [i.e., that had been in this oven] were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him [to make an example of him -- he was a literalist, he was called a "Shammuti," of the school of Shammai, in matters of religious practice -- for defying the Hillelite majority; even his own student, Akiva, failed to defend him or even speak up for him -- politics!]. They said, "Who will go and inform him?" "I will go," answered Rav Akiva, "least an unsuitable person go and inform him, and so destroy the whole world." What did Rav Akiva do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. "Akiva," said Rav Eliezer to him, "what has happened today?" "Master," he replied, "it appears to me that your companions hold aloof from thee." Then he too tore his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth [a sign of mourning], while tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up. [There was, indeed, crop failure the next year.]

The Rabbis conclude that "After the majority must one incline." "Majority" of whom?-Rabbis, of course (which "Rabbis," well, in our times, that's another question entirely). This, despite the fact that everyone knows that ben Hyrcanus is correct and the majority wrong (yes, the writer of the gemarrah clearly knows this but that's beside the point). The point is that this establishes a rabbinic principle that consensus overrules right.

In other words, even when they go beyond the Torah, even when they are wrong, even when God says otherwise "after the majority...." Rav Eliezer saw and understood this is a usurpation of both Divine and prophetic authority.

So, which is it? "See the right, do the right," like Pinchas ... the standard Rabbinic texts concerning Pinchas' actions are not approving. (The Yerushalmi notes that he acted without the approval of the sages - forget that there were no "sages" at that time, only tribal elders - similarly, there is a midrash according to Rabbi Judah bar Pazzi that the sages sought to excommunicate him. There is a gemarra that Israel berated Pinchas for his "presumption.")

So, which is it? "See the right, do the right," like Pinchas, or "do what the Rabbis say or kup a valk?" Which is it?

 But, we also learn that a bat kol was heeded, by this very same academy (Eruvin 13b):

For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, "The law is in agreement with our views" and the latter contending, "The law is in agreement with our views." Then a bat kol (a voice from heaven) announced, "Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim" (these and those are the words of the living God), but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.'

Since, however, "both are the words of the living God," what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the law fixed according to their rulings? Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so humble as to mention the words of Beit Shammai before their own."

Above, we do not accept a bat kol, here we do. Which is it? By the way, it is Gamliel II in both cases.