Stand Strong

At the conclusion of Parshas Balak, we learn that following his failed bid to curse the Jewish people, as Bilam departed, he connived for Moav’s young women to entice the Bnei Yisroel to sin. A leader of shevet Shimon was sinning with the daughter of a leading Midyanite in front of the Jewish people. Nobody knew what to do.

Hashem announced that He would send a plague as punishment for the ongoing decadence, when Pinchos arose from the crowd.

There was only one person from all of Bnei Yisroel who had not lost himself in the mess. Pinchos was the only person who remembered the halacha and knew that because of that, it was up to him to decide whether he should carry out the punishment the couple deserved. With great bravery, he grabbed a spear and did what he had to do, ignoring the dangers of personal peril.

By doing so, he put an end to the devastating plague and brought a swift conclusion to yet another inglorious chapter in our people’s history.

Parshas Pinchos opens with Hashem telling Moshe Rabbeinu, “Pinchos, the son of Elozor, the son of Aharon the kohein, turned back G-d’s wrath from the Bnei Yisroel with his act of kana’us, and He did not destroy the Bnei Yisroel in His anger. Therefore, say [the following]: Hashem is bestowing upon Pinchos His covenant of peace. He and his children who follow him shall be privileged with the covenant of kehunah forever.”

By following the dictates he had been taught by Moshe Rabbeinu and intervening, Pinchos merited the blessing of eternal peace. Because the man of peace is not necessarily the person who sits back passively and does nothing. The people who sit on the sidelines weeping as evil rears its ugly head and seems to triumph might believe they are promoting peace by not getting involved. In fact, they are encouraging evil.

Pinchos is deemed worthy of bearing the torch of kehunah and carrying on the tradition of Aharon Hakohein to be an oheiv shalom verodeif shalom, because he put aside his personal ambitions and intervened. Pinchos was given the eternal blessing of peace because he made peace possible amongst Bnei Yisroel by exterminating evil.

Pinchos halted the plague that had already killed 24,000 Jews because he had the moral courage and clarity to act when others were confounded and immobilized.

He didn’t let popular opinion deter him from slaying those who brazenly defied the Torah’s authority. He knew that an oheiv shalom verodeif shalom sometimes has to act courageously, even if his actions invite misunderstanding and recrimination.

Pinchos knew that the cause of peace is advanced through remaining loyal to Torah. Shalom is achieved by pursuing shleimus, even if that sometimes involves going after the powerful and popular while jeopardizing your own career.

Shalom is rooted in shleimus. When everything is correct, complete and whole, it is possible to also have shalom. If you are lacking in shleimus, then you cannot have shalom.

Torah is the absolute truth. The world was created with the Torah, and the Torah serves as the ultimate gauge in defining our behavior. If we stay true to the Torah, then we will be blessed with peace, for we have followed the guide of personal conduct by which the world was created.

People who conduct themselves contrary to the wishes of the Creator as expressed in the Torah will sink in the swamp of their own hedonism and egoism. Their actions and pursuits will lead them to sadness and deception. They will never achieve shleimus.

Pinchos was singled out as being worthy of following in the footsteps of Aharon Hakohein, who exemplified the pursuit of shalom through the service of Hashem.

Misfortunes transpire on a regular basis. We wonder what can be done to end the suffering. Charlatans arise from among us and pronounce that they have the solutions to our problems. Acting as if they were prophets of old, they single out certain actions and activities for people to follow or correct. If only we would listen to them, they claim, there would be salvation. Others seek to fight battles of decades gone by, without being realistic or honest about today’s ills.

Innocent people seeking direction listen to their smooth talk, and instead of finding salvation, they slide into the abyss of malaise, distraction and lack of balance brought on by the glib words of people who speak with an overall lack of responsibility.

Some are fawning and others deliver fire and brimstone, but the end is the same, because their admonitions are not rooted in Torah, halacha and mesorah. They serve to draw people away from what will help them and add to the confusion and emptiness people feel in their hearts.

Perhaps what we need are more people like Pinchos. We need people whose loyalty to Torah compels them to act properly in all situations. Such people bring shleimus to ailing, wayward people, providing them with direction, proper thought, and a path that will lead them to shalom and satisfaction.

Despotic rulers count on the passivity and fear of the masses. Despots are experts in playing the game of brinkmanship and taking advantage of people’s reluctance to rise up against injustice, even in self-defense.

In our daily lives, we also confront people who abuse their positions as well as our own good natures to serve their selfish ends. We must have the fortitude to stand up to them in the tradition of Pinchos. We can only rid our community of injustice and corruption if we have selfless leaders who forgo their own interests to bring about shleimus for our people.

The Torah tells the story of Pinchos as a lesson to people of inner greatness to conquer the urge to remain passive. The Torah demonstrates that Hashem respects people who are giborim, people who are of fine character, but display strength when necessary. In order to be a good Jew, to be a shomer Torah umitzvos, it is not sufficient to be docile. Often times, you must be strong, a gibor with tremendous strength of character.

Rav Ozer Yonah Kushner told me about his grandfather, who lived in Williamsburg during the time Rav Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d was in America before World War II. Because he had a car, Rav Elchonon stayed in his home and he had the honor of driving the great gaon from place to place.

Once, his grandfather, Mr. Zimmerman, was driving Rav Elchonon someplace and there was another passenger in the car, Rav Yasher, a Litvishe gaon who led a congregation in New York City.

Rav Yasher asked Rav Elchonon a halachic question, but Rav Elchonon didn’t want to answer.

“I have a man in my shul,” said Rav Yasher, “who learned in yeshivos in Lita before coming here. He came to me and told me that he could not find a job that didn’t involve chillul shabbos, so every Shabbos he goes to work. He believes that he is permitted to work on Shabbos, because he has no other way to provide for his family.

“So, this man, as well intentioned as he may be, is a mechallel Shabbos befarhesya, but it is the only aveirah he does. He observes all the other laws of Shabbos. He told me that he makes his own wine, which he uses for Kiddush, and he shechts his own chickens.

“The man came to ask me a question: Since he is a mechallel Shabbos befarhesya, does that render his wine yayin nesech and forbidden? And does it render his chickens neveilos and unsuitable for consumption?”

[The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 2:5) rules that one who publicly desecrates Shabbos is not eligible to shecht animals for human consumption.]

Rav Elchonon did not want to answer, but finally he did. He said that since the man didn’t consider himself a mechallel Shabbos and only did what he felt he had to in order to support his family, though he was wrong, it didn’t make him a mumar lechol haTorah kulah.

When Chazal say that someone who is not a Shabbos observer is viewed as if he disobeys all the laws of the Torah (see Eiruvin 69a, “Eizeh hu Yisroel mumar, zeh hamechallel Shabbosos befarhesya”), Chazal are not saying testimony that it is always that way. Rather, they are saying that it is usually that way. It’s only an umdena.

This is because (Tosafos, Sanhedrin 78b, d”h Lo Haya Yodeia) one who publicly desecrates Shabbos is declaring that he does not believe in maaseh bereishis, that Hashem created the world.

“This man, however,” said Rav Elchonon, “clearly believes in maaseh bereishis. Therefore, for him, he is permitted to eat chickens that he slaughtered and drink the wine he has made, but as far as everyone else is concerned, he is a mechallel Shabbos befarhesya. Thus, his wine is yayin nesech and his chickens are neveilos.”

This story has never been printed before and should not be relied upon as a halachic ruling. I am citing it to show what happens when a Jew is not a gibor.

It is not for us to judge the previous generations and how they dealt with their nisyonos and temptations. What we can see is that the Jews who were strong and left their jobs on Friday knowing that on Monday they will have been replaced, somehow were able to scrape together a livelihood, whether by engaging in peddling or some other type of self-employment. They remained loyal to Shabbos and Torah, giving themselves a fighting chance for their children to be religious.

The Jews who were not giborim eventually became lost to the Jewish people. They were starving. They froze during the winter and roasted during the summer. What, you may ask, do we want from them? The answer is that we want for them to have learned the lesson taught by Pinchos to be a gibor. If you want to be a Torah Jew, if you want your faith to survive, if you want to be able to properly observe halacha, you must be a gibor. Anything less won’t do.

For all time, Pinchos stands as a beacon to weak people seeking to compromise, equivocate and rationalize. “Stand up,” he says. “Be strong,” he proclaims. “Be a gibor.”