This week’s Torah portion is all about the “zealotry of a man named Pinchas .
The modern-day definition of zealot is "a fervent or militant proponent of something." The original Zealots, or Zelotes, from the Greek word pronounced dzay-low-tace, were members of a Jewish sect that at first just refused to pay tribute to the pagan Romans who then occupied the land of Israel, declaring that God was their only King. This eventually escalated to violence and assassination against the Romans, and anyone else, including other Jews, who cooperated with the Romans. The overwhelming power of the Roman military caused their rebellion to fail, after which they became scattered rebels who were also known as Sicarii ("dagger men"), from their deadly use of the sica, a Roman dagger. The Zealots were leading members of the revolt against Rome in 66-70 AD and at Masada they committed suicide rather than surrender to the Roman Tenth Legion.
At the beginning of this week's portion, God grants his Covenant of Peace to Pinchas for his decisive actions at the end of last week's portion. In the final days before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites had gone "awhoring" after the daughters of Moab. God, in His wrath, responded by sending a plague. When Moses turned to God for guidance, he was told to execute the leaders of the sinners. But even as Moses began marshaling his forces, Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Simeon, was caught seducing Cozbi, a princess of the Midianites. Moses was frozen and the people burst into tears. But Pinchas went after the couple and speared them in the act-- thereby, according to the Torah, averting God's wrath and ending the plague which had already claimed 24,000 Israelites.
According to Bar Ilan’s Rabbi Yehudah Zoldan:
But what Pinchas did raises many questions: Can he serve as an admirable model for anyone zealous to perform the word of the Lord? Who is entitled or obliged to be zealous? What characteristics does such a person require? Under what sort of circumstances may a zealot take action? Should a zealot strike at anyone who commits a transgression? Is that not tantamount to encouraging people to take the law into their own hands in the name of the Torah? How could a single individual, even as great as Pinchas, execute the death sentence against any individual, in this instance the head of an Israelite tribe, without due legal process in a court of twenty-three judges, as required in capital cases?
According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 9.6) a zealot is entitled to take action only in three cases of transgression: “If one stole implements of the Temple, or cursed the Lord by idolatrous enchantment, or had sexual intercourse with an idolatress – zealots may lay hold of him.”
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bertinoro summarized the Talmud’s interpretation of the restrictions that apply to a person who is zealous for the word of God and who would lay hold of a man who had sexual intercourse with an idolatress:
Zealots may lay hold of him – those who were zealous for the Omnipresent would kill him. But that pertains only in cases where the idolatress is the daughter of an idolatress, the two are caught in the act, and there are ten Jewish witnesses present. Suffice it for one of these conditions not to be fulfilled, it is forbidden to kill the man. But his punishment is explicitly spelled out by the prophet: “May the Lord leave to him who does this no descendants” (Malachi 2:12); and he receives four lashings, according to scribal regulations: one on account of violating the laws on menstruation, one on account of the laws concerning handmaids, one on account of the laws concerning non-Jewish women, and one on account of the laws concerning harlots.
According to both Talmuds, this law was reiterated in the wake of what Phinehas did, but originally it was instructed to Moses at Mount Sinai:
“When he saw the deed performed he was reminded of the law that one who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 9.7; 27b). Likewise, “Thus you taught me when you came down from Mount Sinai: one who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a).
Why did Phinehas not receive public support and backing? Why does the zealot for the word of the Lord assume a personal risk? Why is this a rule of law which one is not instructed to perform?
Rabbi Kook gave the following explanation:
The act of zealotry – He who has intercourse with an idolatress, zealots may lay hold of him – illustrates a halakhah which we are not instructed to perform. How can such an act takes place except with pristine pure religious intention, devoid of any personal bias? There must not be the slightest element of murder involved, for such an act is done not according to the decision of a court that hears capital cases, not according to the testimony of witnesses, only when caught in the act, and is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven. Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act, which normally causes impurity, transformed to an act which is permissible, to an act which sanctifies. The tribes that had contempt for Phinehas suspected that he had not been devoid of personal biases, that he was not deserving of the elevated status that is requisite for performing “a halakhah that we are not instructed to perform.” It was felt that his family connections on the side of his mother – the woman whose father raised calves to be used for idolatry – made it impossible for his zealotry to be pure, inspired as needs be by perfectly pure, authentic religious intent. Such an ancestry was likely to be obstructive in performing such a complex act, an act that involves the most delicate balance, overriding the proscription against murder, contravening such a grave prohibition, and intended to be transformed into the opposite – an act which is sublimely holy.
Acts of zealotry must be performed out of a high level of spiritual maturity and pure fear of God, and out of careful and responsible consideration. If the circumstances are not precisely these, then it is murder. Also, to the outside world, those present must be convinced of the purity of intent motivating the zealot. In Rav Ashi’s opinion it was only much later that everyone became convinced that Phinehas had acted out of pure motives: “Phinehas was not anointed as a priest … until he had established peace among the tribes, as it is written (Josh. 22:30): ‘When the priest Phinehas … heard…’” (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 101b). Only after he made peace between the tribes living on the eastern bank of the Jordan and the tribes on the western bank of the Jordan was he called the priest Phinehas.
Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli gives another interpretation of a “rule of halakhah that we are not instructed to perform”:
The transgression [intercourse with an idolatress] itself does not carry an obligatory death sentence by the courts, nor does it require a reaction when caught in the act. This rule of halakhah serves but to say that those elect few who carry zealousness for the Lord in their hearts and who sense the full enormity of abhorrence in this act … those people are not obliged to struggle emotionally to overcome their feelings, rather they are permitted to give free reign to their feelings and lay hands on the person who has committed the abhorrent act.
According to this analysis, this rule of halakhah does not dictate to anyone to perform the deed, rather it gives a person permission and backing after the deed has been committed. Phinehas may have come forward from within the community, from the Sanhedrin (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 82a), but he acted on his own initiative. The zealot who takes action solely on the basis of this law, and not because of an inner storm of moral protest that he feels upon seeing such abhorrent behavior, is actually acting against the halakhah. The halakhah does not direct us to take such action from the outset. The people who can satisfy all the necessary conditions are indeed a very select few.
Not only is the zealot forbidden to take action if all these conditions are not satisfied, but also the man who has intercourse is not subject to the death sentence as long as there is no zealot confronting him. This was explained by Rabbi Jacob Moses Harlap:
The law that a man who has intercourse with an idolatress must be put to death does not pertain except when there are zealots present. For they, out of their lofty spirit and feeling for the sanctity of Israel, serve to reveal this sanctity, and thus the former becomes subject to being put to death. But when there are not present any zealots or such people who are stirred to the depths of their being over the sanctity of Israel, in truth the former is not subject to death. The obligation of putting to death is a function of the presence of zealots, and not of the actions of the man having intercourse. Thus it becomes clear … how it could have been permissible for him (Zimri) to kill Phinehas, and even, had he done so, not to be held accountable for murder. According to what we have said – that the obligation of putting to death actually arises at the moment that zealots lay hold of him and not prior to that – it follows that before Zimri was killed, he was not truly subject to the death penalty.
Only a zealot who is also prepared to take the risk of himself being killed, and legally so, before he strikes at the man having intercourse – only such a zealot receives halakhic backing, should he succeed in carrying out his act of zealousness.
It is time to sum up: the ruling that “zealots may lay hold of him” is unique and exceptional. It holds only with regard to the three sins mentioned and is not to be extended to any other walk of life. The zealot must have specific characteristics, indicating true zealousness for the Lord, devoid of any personal or other motives including halakhic ones. Jewish law does not oblige one to be zealous. It may indeed make such acts permissible and give them backing, but only after the fact, after it has been established through investigation that indeed the zealot’s motives were completely pure. What Phinehas did was exceptional, outside the usual judicial setting of the court and not according to regular penal law. Accepted norms were violated for the sake of the sanctity of the people, the sanctity of the Sanctuary, and the sanctity of the Lord. Aspiring toward perfection in these spheres of sanctity is a fundamental characteristic built into the nation, but it finds expression in a unique and exceptional manner in the act of Phinehas, whom it fit and behooved to perform such a deed. As Rabbi Kook explained,
Love of the Lord, when taken to its highest level, becomes zealotry for the Lord… Zealotry for the Lord is imbued in the Jewish people as a whole … in the private individual it is the characteristic of Elijah. 
An interesting commentary from ~ Eitz Chayim Torah and Commentary, The Rabbinical Assembly
"In the text of the Torah scroll, the letter yod in Phinehas's name in the second verse (v.11) is written smaller than the other letters. When we commit violence, even if justifiable, the yod in us (standing for the name of God and for y'hudi, "Jew") is diminished thereby. In verse 12, the letter vav in shalom in the Torah scroll is written with a break in its stem. This is interpreted homiletically to suggest that the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one's opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace." A Word While at first glance it does seem that God praises Pinchas wholeheartedly for so zealously and passionately killing the lovers, Zimri and Cozbi, we can now see that God's praise of Pinchas is not so exuberant and whole. What brilliance the Torah teaches us! We see that, even in its praise for Pinchas, the letters of the text are damaged. It is as if Pinchas, himself, has been damaged for committing such a heinous crime. By committing the crime of murder, Pinchas had caused the yud in his name, the Godliness inside himself, to become diminished. And even more fascinating is that, even in God's blessing for Pinchas is a message. God grants Pinchas peace, yet even the peace is broken because of Pinchas' violence. Perhaps God's blessing of peace is not a guarantee of safety for Pinchas against his enemies, but instead as a fixing of the broken spirit of a person who could commit such a violent act. A person who commits murder as a result of his zeal for God must be protected against himself, for his inner peace is indeed broken. May we, like Pinchas, seek protection against our own zealous and violent tendencies. May our peace be an inner peace, which leads to a greater, worldly, shalom.
This week's parsha also contains one of the most fascinating legal stories in the Torah. This story sets up an evolving common law approach to halacha. There are not very many legal stories in the Torah. There are stories and there are laws, but not many stories about laws. After the grand epics in Genesis and Exodus and the lofty and technical holiness rituals in Leviticus, we turn in Numbers to ordinary life problems. Or, as Arnold Eisen argued in Taking Hold of Torah, we have entered the world of politics: wars with hostile neighboring countries, civil insurrection, gossip, the succession of rulers, and the details of civil administration. And the laws of land inheritance in Israel. By way of background, each of the 12 tribes would own a specific region of the land, and all of the families in that tribe would own some portion of the land. The land would remain in the tribe and family. In fact, if the land were sold, it would revert back to the family in the Jubilee year every fifty years. (Lev. 25:13, 23-24.) Since one's tribe is determined patrilineally, only males can inherit land. Thus, a father's land holdings would be passed down to his son or sons. A daughter would presumably marry and join the family of her husband, and their sons would inherent the land from their father. In short, the law set up a fairly conservative and static system that would preserve family land holdings through male inheritance. This was the state of the law until the daughters of Zelophehad showed up. (Num. 27:1-11.) Zelophehad was a member of the tribe of Manasseh, and he died with five daughters but no sons. Under the rules then in place, his daughters would be left with no inheritance. The daughters argued to Moses and everyone else that they should be allowed to inherent his share. "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen." (Num 27:4.) Moses checked with God, and God said that the daughters were right. "The plea of Zelophehad's daughter is just." (Num. 27:5.) From now on, the rule is that if a man dies without sons but with daughters, the property should be transferred to his daughters. (If he dies without any children, there is a more complex hierarchy of inheritance.) Importantly, this was not merely an elaboration or clarification of the existing law but an entirely new rule. Before this "case" was brought, the daughters would have received nothing and Zelophehad's other relatives would have inherited land. Now the daughters inherent and the other relatives receive nothing. And the basis for this change in the law, according to God, is simply justice. "The plea of Zelophehad's Daughter's is just." (Num. 27:5.) This story shows the evolution of the law. The children of Israel started with one set of legal rules, but they proved to be unjust in a particular situation. God then modified the rules to comport with justice, producing a second set of rules. If this story does not show that halacha evolves, there's more. Eight chapters later, in the last chapter of Numbers, new people show up with a new problem with this law. And it changes again. (Num. 36:1-12.) The family heads of Zelophehad's clan show up with a complaint. If the daughters of Zelophehad marry someone from another tribe, their sons will inherit not only their father's land holding (from the other tribe), but also the land holdings of Zelophehad (from Manasseh). So someone from another tribe will end up owning land smack dab in the middle of Manasseh. The total amount of land that the people of Manasseh own will be permanently reduced. Moses agreed with this argument and "commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying 'The pleas of the the tribe of the sons of Joseph is just.'" Moses then set forth a new rule: daughters may inherit under the old rule only if they marry members of their own tribe. If they marry members of a different tribe, they may not inherit. (The end of the story is that the Daughters of Zelophehad ended up marrying their uncles or cousins, and everyone lived happily ever after.) So by this time, the law has now gone through three stages of development: the original law (only sons inherit), the modified law (daughters can inherit if there are no sons), and the modified modified law (only if they marry someone from their tribe). Several points are worth noting here. First, the Torah could have given us just the final rule without showing any of its intermediate forms of development. The fact that we see the evolution of the law suggests that the evolution itself is important, not just the final law. Second, Moses used the identical language (and the Hebrew is identical: keyn) to describe the plea of the Manasseh tribe here that God used to describe the plea of the daughters of Zelophehad. Their plea is "just". (Some translations use "right".) Third, the text does not say that Moses checked with God before stating the new rule. Instead, Moses himself spoke to the Children of Israel "al pi Adonai": according to the work of God. Fourth, Moses changed the very law that God himself had changed. What do we make of this? It seems to me that God, responding to the daughters of Zelophehad, set forth a methodology for determining when laws should change: if a party successfully argues that a particular law is unjust or not right, the law should change on that ground and that ground alone. God himself changed the law when confronted with this problem. Once God established this methodology, Moses was free to employ it himself in response to the other members of the tribe of Manasseh, and in doing so he spoke "al pi Adonai." And there is no hierarchy of laws here: Moses changed the same law that God himself had changed. This may seem like a radical notion of law. But in fact, it is exactly how Anglo-American common law works. Judges initially publicize a set of rules, one case at a time. But over time, new situations arise that do not merely require the application of existing laws to new situations, but actually require the legal rules themselves to change in response to these new situations. But this is not a license for judges to change the law because of personal preferences or to ignore the law altogether. Under a concept called stare decisis, there is a strong presumption for leaving settled law alone. It takes a strong showing of injustice to change the common law. But when a party can make such a showing, the common law changes. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad seems to set up a similar evolving common law system of halacha, not a static system.
There is another theme to the parsha this week and that is leadership.
In this parsha, the Torah speaks of eight leaders: Moshe, Joshua, and Pinchas, and Zelaphechad’s five daughters who, like few other women in the Torah are named: Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. All of these leaders utilize their distinctive strengths and vision to advance the future of the people. Moshe understands his role as a leader and how to transfer leadership into new hands. In front of all the Israelites, he invests Joshua to be his successor. Joshua’s positive attitude and contemplative nature makes him a natural candidate for the job, but will undoubtedly approach his responsibilities differently than Moshe. As one of the two scouts doing reconnaissance into Canaan, Joshua reported back to the Israelites that yes, the land was filled with “giants,” but it was also just as God promised us, a Land of Milk and Honey. He will not let us down; He has given us the land as part of His covenant with us, and He will guide us to inherit it. Additionally there is the intense and fast-thinking Pinchas, who assures his family’s priestly role in performing God’s holy duties, by demonstrating his zealousness for God. And lastly, Zelaphechad’s daughters, who call social injustices into question, argument.