The Sidra of Pinchas begins in the middle of chapter 25 which describes a most tragic event. This event took place at the time that the Israelites were encamping at the gates of the Promised Land in the town of Shittim, on the eastern bank of the river Jordan, which is opposite Jericho. There, the Israelites became involved with women from Moab and Midian and engaged in immoral and idolatrous practices with them. The Torah refers to this event in the book of Numbers, chapter 31, verse 16. This passage reveals that these events were the result of a plot which had been conceived by the pagan Prophet Balaam. After the failure of his attempts to curse the people of Israel, he decided on a much more proactive and dramatic action which would bring about Israel’s defeat. He almost succeeded in this campaign. Many Israelite men succumbed to this temptation. The climax came when Zimri, the son of Salu, a Prince of the tribe of Shimon, publicly took a Midianite Princess, by the name of Cosby, and committed a most heneous act of pagan immorality with her. He perpetrated this act brazenly in the presence of all the leaders of Israel including Moses. The danger for the Israelites was very real! The danger was both physical and spiritual! It was Pinchas’s action which prevented a complete disaster.
Pinchas who was also watching these events, instinctively took a most drastic action. He took a spear and executed Zimri and Cosby on the spot, without recourse to a legal process; it was something that even Moses was not prepared to do. Through this act of zealousness, Pinchas brought to an end the terrible plague that had killed as many as 24,000 Israelites.
The Sidra of Balak ends on this note. It is very rare for a Sidra to end with a tragic event. In subsequent generations, our rabbis decided that no public reading should end with a sad or tragic event. Nowadays, whenever we stop the reading in order to call someone to the Torah, we end on a happy, or, at least, a neutral note.
The Sidra of Pinchas begins with a happy theme. We are told that the Almighty declared that He was rewarding Pinchas with a special covenant of peace. He would also honour Pinchas and his descendants by making them priests for ever.
The question is: Why did the Masoretes. BAALEI HAMASORAH, who fixed the division of the Sidrot in the 10th century approximately, decide to split the story into two halves? Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, also known as Moses Mikkotsi who lived in the first half of the thirteenth century explains this. He says that the interruption is intended to teach us the lesson that we do not hasten to extend approval to a person who resorts to zealous acts, which might appear to be criminal. It is true that Pinchas acted with bravery and great commitment to God, but he did so through an act of violence and killing. Before God approved of his actions He waited. Acts of fanaticism are wrong in the vast majority of cases. Initially, the Israelites themselves were unable to accept it. They were extremely hostile to Pinchas. They despised him. They questioned his motives and accused him of being a descendant of an Idol worshipper himself.
The Almighty commended his action and gave him a covenant of peace. This means that He promised him that people would gradually come to terms with his action and even praise him for what he did. Indeed, this is what happened. Eventually, Pinchas became the high priest and a most respected leader. He remained active until the period of the Judges and lived to a ripe old age.
Many generations later he became a greatly venerated figure. He was compared or even identified with Elijah, the Prophet who also acted with zealousness in his fight with the pagan prophets of Baal. This comparison or identification is the reason that the Haftarah of Pinchas is taken from the book of Kings. It describes Elijah’s famous flight to Mount of God, in the Sinai desert, after his victory against the pagan prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, on Mount Carmel.
It is interesting to note that this Haftarah is read very rarely, and only in leap years. In most years, it is not read because the Sidra of Pinchas usually occurs during the three weeks of suffering, between the fasts of the 17th of Tamuz and the Ninth of Av. When the Sidra of Pinchas occurs during these ‘three weeks’, generally known as The Three Weeks the Haftarah is taken from the Book of Jeremiah. This Haftarah has no connection with the Sidra of the week. Indeed, all the last twelve Shabbatot of the year have a Haftarah which is connected to the theme which relates to that particular time of year. We have three Haftarot devoted to Pur’anut, the theme of suffering and punishment. After the fast of the Ninth of Av, we read seven Haphtarot of comfort. In the last two weeks of the year, we read Haphtarot which are devoted to the theme of repentance.