As mentioned, Zimri the son of Salu was one of the leaders of the tribe of Shim’on. The Midianite woman, Cozbi, was likewise a daughter of a “head of the people of a father's house in Midian” (25:15). Leading Yisrael astray definitely ranked high on the list of priorities of the Mo’av-Midian coalition. The protagonists’ names, in this Parasha like that of last week’s, are also of interest. Thus, Pin’chas appears to be an Egyptian name, having the characteristics so typical of other Egyptian names, such as the name of the town of Tach’pan’ches (Jeremiah 44:1) and that of Tach’peh’nis Egyptian wife of Hadad the Edomite (1 Kings 11:19, 20). But even more interesting is the name of the Midianite princess Cozbi, which is made up of the letters kaf/chaf, zayin, bet/vet, and yod. The first three of those, that is c.z.b/v, constitute the root for the word “cazav” (or, phonetically, “kazav”), which means to “lie, deceive, lying, deception.” Last week we read in 23:19: “Elohim is not a man that He should lie.” The verb rendered there as “lie” is “(vay)cha’zev,” which refers particularly to “being unfaithful or untrue to one’s commitment or promise.” In a land thirsty for water as Yisrael is, riverbeds hold a promise of getting filled during the winter season. However, in the dry season such riverbeds dry up. Hence, a stream of water which dries up after the rainy season may be used as imagery for that which lets one down: “You surely are to me like deceitful – ach’zav - waters which cannot be trusted,” complains Yirmiyahu in a moment of dark despair to his Creator (Jer. 15:18). Cozbi, too, was nothing but a bait of deception and enticement to the people of Yisrael (cf. Prov. 5), and especially to leaders like Zimri. Walking in the paths of temptation, away from He Who is the Way the Truth and the Life, leads not only to disappointment, but far worse… to destruction and death, which was experienced by 24,000 souls in Yisrael’s camp (ref. 25:9).
The opening section of the Parasha presents two words that are used several times within a few verses. The first one is repeated four times in 25:11-13, and it is “jealous,” “zealous,” or “jealousy.” The root of “jealousy/zealousness” is kano (root k.n.a. kof, noon, alef) originating in the “color produced in the face by deep emotion” . It is especially related to marriage relationship and as “God is depicted as Israel’s husband; he is [therefore] a jealous God… Phinehas [too] played the faithful lover by killing a man and his foreign wife, and thus stayed the wrath of divine jealousy”.  The other word that occurs five times in verses 14-18 is “smite or smitten” and “strike” (in other translations “slay and slain”). In all these instances the verb “nako” (n.k.h, noon, kaf, hey) is used in a variety of conjugations. N.k.h (or “hakot”) is a very common root and may be used in many different ways, describing fall and defeat, punishment, being beaten, smitten or hurt for a variety of reasons. In our case it relates to the punishment of death. However, because of the emphatic repetition of “jealousy/zealousness” - kano - just before the reiteration of “nako” - it would appear that our text is underscoring a situation in which YHVH’s “jealousy” has been provoked, resulting in a “smiting unto death.” Clearly, a cause-and-effect word picture is being conveyed here, being aided by a (subtle) play on words.
When YHVH reminds Moshe that his day of departure is close at hand, the latter expresses his concern regarding the future: “Let YHVH, the Elohim of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who may go out before them, and who may go in before them, and who may lead them out, and who may bring them in, so that the congregation of YHVH may not be as sheep to whom there is no shepherd” (27:16,17). Evidently Moshe understands the integrated composition of man, being both flesh and spirit while at the same time also recognizing that YHVH knows his creatures through and through. In describing the need for a leader, Moshe underscores “going out before (the people)… going in before (them)… leading out… and bringing in…” Is Moshe subtly making reference to the possible fate of the next leader, lest it be similar to his own (that is, staying behind and not entering the land with the rest of the people)? Whether that is the case or not, Moshe displays no bitterness when told to “take Joshua, a man in whom is the spirit” (v. 18), echoing the “spirits” mentioned in verse 16 above. YHVH instructs Moshe how to ordain his successor, which Moshe follows implicitly; “as YHVH commanded” (v. 23), in spite of what was no doubt a grave disappointment to him. However, since Moshe had not been deceived or embittered, his disappointment is not like the description found in Ee’yov (Job) 41:9: “Behold, your expectation is false [nich’zeva, of the root k.z.v examined above].” Neither was Moshe’s experience like that of the faithless ones from among the people of Yisrael who sought gratification in the wrong places and from that which was not able to satisfy.
- New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Peabody, Mass. 1979.