It was absolute pandemonium. The Nasi of Shevet Shimon, Zimri, an outstanding Talmud Chachom, a manhig, a person loved and respected for his humility and honesty, was defying Moshe Rabbenu. In front of the entire machana, he was taking a Midianite woman. “And where did your wife come from?” Zimri taunted Moshe. The people wondered, what would the outcome be? How would Moshe respond to this latest crisis?
To everyone’s surprise, Moshe hesitates. The leadership, the decisive action that Klal Yisroel has come to expect, wasn’t there. Will he respond to the challenge? Use his powers as melech to mete out punishment or daven to Hashem for Divine intervention?
One person though has no doubt of his course of action. One person is seething with jealousy for the honor of Hashem. The Chazal tell us that all 248 limbs of Pinchas’ body was focused on one thing – stopping this terrible Chillul Hashem that Zimri was committing. In the midst of his single minded drive he picks up a spear, aims at Zimri, and then, as Rashi tells us, turns to Moshe. “Rebbe, isn’t the halacha in this case that a Kanoi, a Zealot is allowed to kill someone committing this crime?” Pinchas pauses with his spear poised, waiting for a response. Because if Moshe says no, Pinchas will drop the spear and walk away. It doesn’t matter that every fiber of his essence is calling out for jealousy. It doesn’t matter that no one else is doing anything. Pinchas has one question – is this the halacha? Because if not, he will walk away.
Pinchas is the prototype of a kanoi. Some modern commentators are troubled by his attempt to take the law into his own hands, to act out of apparent anger and kill someone in the name of Hashem as he saw fit. They do backflips to explain away this parsha, to show that Pinchas was incorrect in his behaviour. I heard one Rabbi suggest that Pinchas received the bris shalom, the convenant of peace not as a reward, but to stop him from committing anymore acts of violence! There was a press release one year before Chanukah saying the Jews were celebrating the holiday of religious freedom and tolerance. Hoe Mattisyahu killing a Jew for eating pork is an expression of religious tolerance is a mystery to me.
Ironically, certain modern day kannoim also invoke the name of Pinchas to justify their behavior. They are prepared to do what they think is right regardless of any other considerations. There was a din torah before the Badatz in Yerushalayim about whether a particular educational institution should have a right to open in a particular neighborhood. The baalei din were presenting their views, both sides were bringing proofs when in walked a small group of residents. “Honorable Rabbonim” they said. “You are free to sit here in your office and deliberate. But regardless of your decision we want you to know that if they open we will be there to throw stones”.
Both groups, evidently, forgot the Rashi at the end of Parshas Balak. The first thing a kanoi must do is ask his rebbi, is this the halacha? When the Mesillas Yesharim in Perek 19 describes the aspects of hassidis, he lists under ahava, love of Hashem the need to be a kanoi. The Ramchal writes “a kanoi