I knew a certain president who kept calm under the greatest provocation until one evening when a council member got under his skin and there was an explosion. Later I said to my friend, “That was rather unusual for you!”, and he replied, “I had to react. I never lose my temper except on purpose!”
Does this tell us anything about Pinchas, who saw the Divine law being flouted whilst the people “wept at the door of the tent of assembly”, and stepped forward and executed summary justice on the man and woman – Zimri and Kozbi – who were acting so brazenly in public?
We understand what Pinchas did: as far as he was concerned, the whole moral teaching of the Torah was being challenged and someone had to step forward and act. But do we know why it was left to Pinchas to “avert the plague”? Where was Moses?
Rashi attempts to stand up for Moses by saying, “The halachic ruling escaped his mind for the moment”. In other words, Moses – despite being at least as shocked as Pinchas – was not sure of the right thing to do.
Yet Moses did have a temper as we see from his response when the people riled him beyond the point of endurance and he shouted at them and hit the rock to which he was supposed to speak quietly with the request that water be sent forth for the people (Num. 20:11).
So why did he not shout and lose his temper this time? Possibly he felt uneasy at having given way to anger on the occasion of the water incident and was now searching for a way of handling a crisis without losing his temper.
But with hindsight we might have to conclude that there is a time for a short fuse, and this was that kind of time. Pinchas may have been impulsive, but his was the better instinct.