All the Tzaddikim Come to the Aid of the Generation
One of the worst sins that the Children of Israel committed in the desert was the “sin of Baal Peor.” While staying in Shittim, the Children of Israel began to sin with the daughters of the land. As we know, this was the result of the advice that the wicked Bilam gave to Balak before leaving: “The G-d of these [people] hates lewdness…come and I will advise you” (Sanhedrin 106a). What Bilam advised him to do was to make them sin by Baal Peor, thinking that in this way the Jewish people would never recover.
In fact at the end of the previous parsha (Parsha Balak) we read, “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw and stood up from among the assembly and took a spear in his hand” (Numbers 25:7). Here the Sages ask, “What did he see?” They answer, “He saw what was happening and remembered the Halachah…He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots” (Sanhedrin 82a). Hence a zeal for Hashem arose in Pinchas.
This is clear for everyone to see. Hashem wanted to save the Children of Israel from destruction, but how? It was for this reason that He brought forth a leader from among them, a man of great stature – Pinchas the son of Elazar the priest – who was filled with a zeal for Hashem and killed the sinners among them. The result was that the Children of Israel survived, for all evil had been removed from their midst. If we were to reflect a little more deeply on what happened, we would see just to what extent the things that a person sees can lead him to sin. Not only that, but what a person sees can incite him to scorn the leaders of the generation and to mock them. Pinchas arose from among the assembly, meaning that he did not feel superior to any of them; he did not think of himself as being important. When he told Moses that the Halachah “He who cohabits with a heathen woman is punished by zealots” is known, Moses replied, “He who reads the letter, let him be the agent” (Sanhedrin 82a).
This is why Pinchas, the son of Elazar the priest, drew courage from his holiness, took a spear in his hand, and killed the sinners. It was not only them, but 24,000 other people who died in the plague resulting from the sin of Baal Peor. Why so many people? It was because the sin of indecency is extremely serious. What happened then? The Sages said that eight miracles were performed for Pinchas, eight supernatural events by which Pinchas succeeded in removing evil from among the Jewish people and bringing them holiness. When Pinchas did act, all the Jewish people were of course standing on the side, and they saw with their own eyes the great miracles that occurred for him. The people saw that Hashem was standing by his side to help him increase their degree of purity. Yet it is precisely here that the Sages ask why the verse connects Pinchas to Aaron. Why does the verse state, “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest” (Numbers 25:11)? They answer that it is because the tribes began scorning him: “See this son of Puti, whose maternal grandfather fattened cattle for idols, and who has now slain the chief of a tribe of Israel” (Sanhedrin 82b). That is why the verse connects Pinchas to Aaron.
This is astounding: A tribal leader of Israel brought such a serious sin upon the Children of Israel that 24,000 of them died, yet the tribes complained about Pinchas after he purified the people? How could that be?
We can learn an important lesson from all this, for now and all the generations. At that time the Children of Israel had a burning desire to sin, and they did so with the women of Moab, who by their enticing words led them to committing the worst of sins. As a result, although they clearly saw the miracles that were being done for Pinchas, and even though they realized that things could not continue like this, they still scorned Pinchas for what he did. Why did act like this? When the Children of Israel saw the sin of Baal Peor with their own eyes, they simply descended a few levels lower on the spiritual scale. This descent is what led them to mock even the tzaddikim of the generation. Their eyes led them to laugh at Hashem’s holy one, Pinchas, mocking him to the point that they said his grandfather fattened calves for idolatry.
From this we see just how sins can drive a person mad and turn him away from G-d. When a person sins, he is liable to mock the tzaddikim of the generation, who fight to repair breaches in the walls of piety and holiness. In reality, “A person does not commit a transgression unless a spirit of folly enters into him” (Sotah 3a), and if that does happen, it will even lead him to speak against the tzaddikim of the generation. We must be very careful not to offend the honor of the tzaddikim or the leaders of Judaism, wherever they may be, for they are the only ones who can plead our cause, and only they can stand between us and our Father in Heaven. The verse says as much by stating, “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the priest,” connecting Pinchas to Aaron the priest. Why does the verse not continue to cite the ancestors of Aaron as well? Here too the Torah shows us just how great Pinchas truly great. He followed the paths of his grandfather Aaron the priest, whom the Sages describe as loving peace and pursuing peace. He loved others and brought them closer to the Torah (Perkei Avoth 1:12). What is the meaning of “pursuing” peace? Even when the Children of Israel wanted to disrupt his peace, Aaron did not allow that to happen. He always pursued peace, for he knew that it was essential. Peace (shalom) is one of Hashem’s Names, and it is only through Him that can peace can reign between a person and his fellow. This is why we must strengthen ourselves by the power of the tzaddikim of the generation, for among the servants of G-d they are the only ones who can lead people to protect themselves and be saved from all sin. By their great power, it is only the tzaddikim who can shine their influence upon us to perform mitzvot and good deeds.