Counter-productive Ambition (Pinchas)
The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream. -William Shakespeare
Men of Israel, while camped in the desert, are seduced by Midianite and Moabite women into both adultery and idolatry. The moral breakdown is so pervasive that a prince of the Israelite tribe of Simeon, Zimri, publicly couples with a Midianite princess, Kozbi, in front of Moses and the leadership of Israel. While this is happening, and as a direct result of the mass-lewdness, a divinely ordained plague is rapidly killing off thousands of Israelites. While the rest of the leadership seems paralyzed, Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, proceeds to kill the indiscreetly romantic prince and princess. Thereafter, the plague comes to a sudden halt, after killing 24,000 Israelites.
God is then effusive in his praise of Pinchas and his actions and elevates him and all his descendants to Kohanic status. The Bat Ayin on Numbers 25:10 states that Pinchas’ courage in taking upon himself the killing of Zimri and Kozbi and his subsequent divine reward are both tied to his innate humility. He explains that Pinchas’ underlying trait was one of humility, which enabled him to clearly see what his obligation was. His subsequent humility after God’s praise further cemented the eternal nature of his reward.
The Bat Ayin takes the opportunity to expound on the power of humility and the dangers of what he sees as the opposite of humility – undue ambition. Pinchas was happy with his lot. He wanted only what God wanted for him. He only wanted to do God’s will. Therefore, when he was confronted with the challenging situation of Zimri and Kozbi, his deep humility, his singular desire to do God’s will, gave him the distinct clarity as to what God wanted of him. Pinchas proceeds, still retaining his humility, to follow God’s desire. Even after his subsequent elevation, Pinchas retains his humility as he understands that his new status is likewise God’s desire.
The Bat Ayin continues that when God intends for a person to have something, there is nothing that person can do to change that eventuality. Likewise, if God doesn’t intend for a person to receive something, there is nothing that person can do, there is no agency in the universe that will bring them one iota closer to receiving what God will not allow. If a person has ambitions beyond what God has decreed, they will be disappointed and struggle in vain. If anything, undue ambition, to desire what God doesn’t desire for us is an arrogance that can have detrimental and counter-productive effects. A classic example is the Midrash about the first days of Creation when the moon complained to God that there can’t be two rulers of the sky, both the moon and the sun – the moon implying that it should be the unrivaled ruler. However, the moon’s ambition backfired; God decreed that the moon should be diminished while the sun would be the prime ruler of the sky.
May we channel our ambitions to things we’re certain God would want.
To our son, Yehoshua, on completing his Masa Kumta (end of training, capped by overnight trek and receipt of his unit’s beret).