Good Doesn’t Always Come as Expected

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

What Is Rewarded In This World

God grants Pinhas eternal priesthood for his actions in killing Zimri, 25;13. Bamidbar Rabbah 21;1 says this came to him ba-din, by right (rather than as a kindness or instance of divine generosity). Meshech Hochmah finds the Midrash at seeming contrast to his understanding of Yeshayahu 3;10. The verse says speak good to the righteous, for they will eat the fruit of their good deeds. Good deeds are paid back in this world, he hears the verse teach us, because the purveyor of good has improved this world.

By implication, he thinks, when righteous people protest or remove evil, they act well and importantly, but the payback usually comes in the next world. Their actions did not build this world, it lessened the bad, so there is no reason to reward it in this world.

The Midrash’s saying that Pinhas earned his reward ba-din, justly, challenges his model, because Pinhas removed evil, not contributed good.

The Kindness In a Killing

He finds the answer in the plague Pinhas stopped. Tehillim 106;30 says Pinhas stood and va-yefalel, found a way to convince God to stop the plague. Killing Zimri and Kazbi saved lives, showed the Jewish people had some merit (that one of them knew enough to stand firm in the face of Zimri’s breach of standards). Meshech Hochmah references Shabbat 127b, one who judges others meritoriously earns reward in this world. [We usually read “judges others meritoriously” that the person thinks well of them; Meshech Hochmah is taking it to mean finds a way to get the Judge to look at them more leniently).

Step one of his view of Pinhas: his seemingly destructive good deed, generally rewarded in the World to Come, was also lifesaving, by “convincing” God to stop the plague. The rewards of lifesaving acts come in this world, by right.

An Unshakeable Covenant

R. Meir Simhah then struggles with why Hashem works through Moshe to inform Pinhas of his new status; since Pinhas was also a prophet [an assumption he based on Midrashim, I think], why didn’t Hashem tell him directly? So the covenant would be unbreakable, he says. Rambam in the Introduction to the Mishnah pointed out prophets’ predictions are often not ironclad, can be changed by later events. The one exception is an unconditional prediction of something good. For Rambam, it was part of how prophets proved their authenticity.

Pinhas was being promised more than priesthood or even High Priesthood: he was being guaranteed these, regardless of how his descendants acted. Even in the Second Temple [a long time later and also a time of some corruption in the priesthood], Pinhas had descendants who served as High Priest.

Why so longlasting? As God says, Pinhas’ actions avoided greater (deserved) destruction (the word in the Torah is ve-lo kiliti, I did not destroy, a refraining felt in our continued existence), so Pinhas’ impact appears in every generation, as does his reward.

Their Urim ve-Tumim Status Did Not Last as Long

Two chapters later, Meshech Hochmah spots a fragile aspect of the High Priesthood. Hashem tells Moshe to designate Yehoshu’a as his successor, one of whose roles will be to stand before Elazar the Priest, to consult with the Urim ve-Tumim on behalf of the people, 27;21.

We see leaders ask these kinds of questions during the time of the Judges, and Kings Sha’ul and David. After the Beit Ha-Mikdash is built, people mostly are told God’s words by prophets, a change Meshech Hochmah attributes to the idea on Yoma 73b, only a High Priest upon whom the Divine Presence rests, who speaks with ruah ha-kodesh, can answer questions posed to the Urim ve-Tumim. [The process has aspects of prophecy, the Gemara is saying, so only a High Priest on a level of quasi-prophecy can serve this role.]

Most of the time, even in the first Temple, the High Priest was unqualified. Meshech Hochmah understands Divrei Ha-Yamim II 26;3-5 to tell us Zecharyah the High Priest was an exception, as was the Azaryah of Divrei Ha-Yamim I 5;36. For both verses—and one tradition said they were the same person—this particular High Priest could do what most could not, recognize and transmit the messages sent through the Urim ve-Tumim.

[To accept his idea would say Hashem included in the structure of the Beit Ha-Mikdash, among the garments of the Kohen Gadol, an element more aspirational than practical. The hoshen mishpat, the breastplate, served its function all the time, but the Urim ve-Tumim, the names and mechanism hidden within it, only worked rarely, with High Priests of unusual spiritual excellence.]

With Greater Freedom Comes Greater Responsibility

Parshat Pinhas lists communal offerings, daily ones and the additional ones for special days. The Shabbat Mussaf offering, 28;10, consists of two lambs each an olah, a burnt offering. All the other special days have hataot, sin offerings, as well as olot.

Traditionally, an olah atones for wrongful thoughts, where a hatat usually reacts to an act of sin [some examples of hatat stimulated debate on that question, such as the one a new mother offers when she completes her postpartum recovery, and/or the one the nazir offers when s/he completes that period of life; while some sources found sins for each, other sources said a hatat sometimes is not linked to sin].

Meshech Hochmah suggests Shabbat’s many restrictions make sin unlikely enough for there to be no need for a communal hatat. On holidays, when we are allowed creative labors as part of the process of preparing food, melechet ochel nefesh, there is more room for sin and more need for a hatat.

I like the grounding assumption too much to lose it to the many technical questions we might ask [such as that Yom Kippur has a hatat despite melechet ochel nefesh being prohibited; or that Massechet Shabbat spends much of its time discussing what erroneous acts by Jews will incur a hatat, implying Jews always found ways to step unwittingly wrong on Shabbat, too; or that this assumes the communal hatat is about sins ordinary people will do on that day when the beginning of Shevu’ot relates those sacrifices to other sins; or that a hatat is usually for a sin with karet, and Yom Tov has no karet for its melachah transgressions]. He is highlighting the trade-off between freedom and the danger of stepping wrong.

Shabbat, with less freedom, increases our spiritual safety. Holidays give us greater latitude to enjoy life, to celebrate God’s Presence in human ways, but also bring more challenges [he does not discuss it here, but remarkable passages at the end of Tractate Hagigah assume parts of the Beit Ha-Mikdash were rendered ritually impure on every major holiday by uneducated or indifferent Jews, and yet the value of the gathering overrode that trouble].

The choice of where on the graph of freedom and risk we choose to sit arises often. Meshech Hochmah is saying Hashem gave us both models, Shabbat with more restriction and less risk, reflected in its Mussaf, and holidays with fewer prohibitions but therefore also more possibility of sin, days Hashem signaled it is worth bearing the consequences in the name of the celebration.

Our three Meshech Hochmahs show us Pinhas being rewarded in this world because his defeat of evil was also an act of salvation, the rarity of High Priests being able to take advantage of the Urim ve-Tumim, and the need to always balance freedom and the goods it brings with the proportional rise in wrong acts that come with.

About Gidon Rothstein

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