Oz Torah: After the plague – Torah reading: Pinchas.





Pinchas had “pi-nechas (nechoshet)”, “a mouth of brass”. He was a gallant warrior who was indignant when he saw people rebelling against God and the Torah.

As a priest, a grandson of Aharon HaKohen, he should never have taken up a weapon and killed the sinners, but God recognised that he had acted out of zeal for the Divine name.

There looks like a contrast between the grandfather and the grandson. Aharon was a man of peace whilst Pinchas seems to be a man of war.

When God said that Pinchas had “turned away My wrath from the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11), He added, “I award him a covenant of peace”, which means that in some way Pinchas had promoted the ideal of peace.

But why did God call it a covenant? What form of peace did Pinchas promote?

Peace between the Israelites? Perhaps, since the sinners had shattered the unity of the people.

But in a higher sense, peace between God and Israel. No covenant could survive if one party went in one direction and the other party followed a different path.

Pinchas restored the covenant.


“After the plague” God said to Moses, “Count the Children of Israel”.

There must be a connection between the plague and the census.

We find an answer if we look at our own generation and then go back to the Torah passage.

Whatever word we use for the Holocaust, “plague” is the least horrific. Before the plague the world Jewish population was probably about 18 million, not a very large number but without the anti-Jewishness of the centuries there would have been at least 100 million Jews.

But the fact was 18 million, and a census at the end of the Holocaust would have revealed that we were down to about 12 million. It’s now creeping up again.

The figure is not just relevant in external terms but internally.

Who were the survivors? What was their morale – depressed or determined?

The answer is “Both at the same time”.

Baruch HaShem our determination has prevailed and internally we are strong and committed.

That’s what Moses was checking for his age. Were they despondent or determined?

If they decided to stride boldly ahead and build a future, all would be well.


Pinchas was indignant. Things were being done in the Israelite camp which were morally intolerable. His conscience would not let him remain passive. “Vayyikkach romach b’yado”, “He took a spear in his hand” (Num. 25:7) – and he went after those who were flaunting their immorality for all to see, and he killed them.

The consequences of his deed may have compromised his position as a priest, but at that moment his instinct told him, “It is a time to act for HaShem; they have broken Your Torah” (Psalm 119:126).

The No’am Elimelech looks at the word “romach” – a spear – and finds that its letters have the numerical value of 248, the rabbinic enumeration of the limbs of the body. The implication is that Pinchas responded to the crisis with every fibre and facet of his body.

But 248 is also the number of positive mitzvot in the Torah – the “thou shalts”. This suggests a further interpretation: that Pinchas countered the challenge positively, not with violence or with passion and emotion, but with reason and persuasion.

The historical fact is that the “romach” he used was a real spear, and he really did carry out an act of indignant violence, but on another level the link with 248 can suggest that there is more than one “romach” with which one can attack a crisis.

Most of the time the calm voice of reason should be used to correct and contain a situation. There are times to appeal to the emotions and enlist heart as well as mind in moving from an unacceptable to an acceptable solution. Only in a real emergency when nothing else is working should you contemplate losing your cool and becoming physical.


Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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