In a small village lived a poor groom. Unable to afford a proper tailor to make a wedding suit, he brought material to a second-rate one. The poor boy was shocked to see the results.
"But this sleeve is six inches too short," he cried. "So pull in your arm," smiled the tailor. "But the other sleeve is a half a foot too long!" "So extend it," beamed the so-called craftsmen. "And the pants," screamed the groom, "the left leg is twisted!" "Oh that's nothing. Just hop down the aisle with your knee slightly bent!"
At the wedding, the assembled reeled in horror as the poor groom hobbled down to the canopy in the poor excuse for a suit. "What a grotesquely disfigured young man," gasped one guest. "Oy! Ah rachmunis (pity) on his poor bride," sighed another. The spectators looked once again at the pathetic sight and noticed how well the suit appeared to fit. In unison they all exclaimed. "But his tailor -- what an extraordinary genius!" (More Parsha Parables Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky)
Character assassination is what some people do when they feel like they can’t win an argument based on the merits. People who’ve made-up their minds but can’t justify their position, rationally, oftentimes resort to attacking the character, credibility or motive of their critics, as opposed to the logic. Just ask conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, he’ll tell you that liberals do this all the time.
Truth is of course, that it’s not just liberals who do it, all kinds of people are guilty of resorting to character assassination – liberals, conservatives, religious people, as well as secular folk. Still, that doesn’t make it right. Some people refer to this tactic as the classic “Cheap shot.”
As with most physiological traits, character assassination has been around for a very long time. It is, in fact, one of the highlights of this week’s Torah reading. The Torah and its keen insight vis-à-vis human nature and physiology, has identified this human fallacy and trait over three thousand years ago.
The opening verses of our Parsha; Pinchas, follow the account – related at the end of the previous Parsha – of the lascivious behavior on the part of the Jewish people and the brazen defiance exhibited by a Prince from the tribe of Shimon named Zimri. It concludes with the heroic response to the crisis by a young man named Pinchas.
Zimri, publicly flouted Moshe's authority by bringing a Midianite woman into the camp “Before the eyes of Moshe and before the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel.”
Claiming that since Moshe was allowed to marry the daughter of the Priest of Midian, he too should be allowed a Midianite woman, he sought to eliminate all boundaries between the holy and profane, by opening the floodgates for casual relations with people of all nations without discrimination.
While the humble Moshe stood speechlessly amidst the entire Jewish leadership, in a state of shock and consternation over the public scandal, Pinchas took the law into his own hands by killing the Prince and the Midianite woman at the entranceway to the Tent of Meeting.
The killing gave rise to civil unrest. A highly charged debate raged among the people as to whether his actions were justified or murderous. The tribe of Shimon was particularly disgruntled over Pinchas’ action, since Zimri was their leader.
In the beginning of our Parsha, G-d puts an abrupt end to the controversy. The Almighty establishes Pinchas’ righteousness for all time, by tracing his lineage to Aharon the Kohen. Pinchas is further credited with halting the plague that had broken out as a result of Zimri’s contemptuous conduct. The latter has led to his most important reward – the covenant of Peace and eternal Priesthood.
Rashi describes the nature of the accusations levied against Pinchas. Pinchas, they argued, was the maternal grandson of Jethro. This same Jethro, they noted, had once been an idol-worshipper who was in the habit of fattening calves for sacrifice – an act of supreme cruelty. After all what can be more cruel than to appear to be acting for someone’s benefit – feeding him well – only for the sake of the ultimate slaughter?
Why did Pinchas, of all people, rise and take vengeance into his hands? Because he was animated by malice, not by conscience. They accused him of having inherited a streak of cruelty from his grandfather, Jethro, which was the source of his zealous nature.
In light of Rashi’s commentary we can better appreciate G-d’s response – establishing Pinchas’ genealogy as the “son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest.” It was to show that in his act of zealotry, Pinchas was not the “grandson of Jethro” but the “grandson of Aharon.” In other words: he was not driven by cruelty but by a burning religious zeal.
As Rashi tacitly points out, the crucial words in this phrase are: The son of “Aharon.” The emphasis here is on Aharon’s character, for aside from his priesthood, Aharon is remembered as one who “pursued peace and caused love to descend between contending parties.”
When contention set-in between the Israelites and G-d, Pinchas sought to replace it with love, as the verse states, “Pinchas… has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel.’’ This was the underlying nature of Pinchas’ zealousness – a deep love of peace, which he had inherited from his grandfather Aharon – a desire to remove the cause of the bitterness between G-d and His people and calm the Divine wrath.
In doing what he did, Pinchas risked his life; he did not consider the danger to himself. Zimri was supported by his entire tribe, and they could have easily killed him. What concerned him was the spiritual and physical danger facing the Jewish people, and he was willing to risk his life to eliminate the threat.
Among the many lessons that can be derived from this animated Parsha and particularly the story of Pinchas, is the need for intellectual honesty. You may disagree with the next guy but your argument ought to be based on logic.
If you can’t seem to find the right reasoning to support your contention, don’t resort to attacking your opponent’s motive and character. Maybe, it is your logic that is flawed. Maybe, just maybe, it is you who is reacting to emotions versus logic. Perhaps it you who is the one saying: “I made up my mind don’t disturb me with the facts!”
The Talmud tells us that Pinchas is Elijah. This is to say that the Profit Elijah is a reincarnation of Pinchas. We know that Elijah is the harbinger of the final redemption. In this light our narrative takes on new meaning.
G-d’s eternal message is: “Do not question the character and motives of my Pinchas – do not cast aspersions on Pinchas and his incarnation Elijah the harbinger of redemption – for I say that they are pure and they are good!”
When you hear someone heralding the prophecy of the redemption – when someone speaks of the immanent coming of Moshiach in a way that may seem radical and zealous to you, don’t attack him – his motives and character, for you know not the true heart of man. You know not what you are talking about.
It is Pinchas who stopped the plague and brought down peace upon Israel, and it is Pinchas and his incarnation Elijah, and all those who occupy themselves with the work of Elijah – the heralding of the imminent coming of Moshiach – that will put an end to this dark exile and hasten the final and ultimate redemption, may it be speedily in our day!