The first portion of the Torah that I ever layned was one that has a very strong connection with this week’s parsha. It actually wasn’t from it, but rather from the very end of last week’s parsha, Balak, and it wasn’t a particularly happy episode. I still remember that paragraph, as if it were today:

Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron HaKohen saw and he stood up amid the assembly and he took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand. – Bamidbar 25:7-9

Indeed, not a pretty episode… Not only because we learn in it that 24,000 people died during the plague, but also – in my opinion – because an act of violence was necessary for this terrible plague to end.

At the very beginning of this week’s parsha, Pinchas is given the title of Kohen for his zealotry. It is a strange distinction to receive for an act of violence, and from the few verses the Torah uses for this episode, we cannot understand much:

Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron HaKohen has turned away My anger from the people of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake among them, that I did not consume the people in My anger. Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. – Bamidbar 25:10-12

Before we try to properly explain this statement, let’s first ask the following questions: Is G-d saying that Pinchas was right in killing the Israelite and the woman he was with? Or, to make it more broad and significant: does G-d endorse acts of zealous violence in order to punish the sinners? If this act would happen today, if we witnessed a religious zealot kill someone who is engaged in something that goes against religious prescriptions, what would we say? What does Judaism think about this? How do we view religiously motivated violence? Is this type of zealotry something that we should emulate in our daily lives, is it something we should openly reject or perhaps it is something that should leave us indifferent?

A first attempt to answer all these questions comes from the Talmud. In Mesechet Sanhedrin 82a, when discussing this very episode, the rabbis conclude that Pinchas was actually a rodef, a pursuer, whose life could have been taken by any witness to the scene without any legal consequence. We are told that Pinchas could have been killed in order to prevent him from killing Zimri and Cozbi, the Israelite man and the Midianite woman.

So the answer, the only answer the Talmud gives is that — even if potentially warranted at the time — Pinchas’ action was nevertheless to be condemned. So, the question is shifted now: how does a man who is a pursuer get to become a Kohen? Isn’t that a sign that — no matter how outraged we could be as humans in seeing Pinchas’ deed — G-d is still happy or at least ok with it? Why else would He make Pinchas a Kohen, a priest to minister in His name?

Well, in order to answer that question we need to properly understand G-d’s words at the beginning of this week’s parsha. Let’s read them again:

Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron HaKohen has turned away My anger from the people of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake among them, that I did not consume the people in My anger. Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. – Bamidbar 25:10-12

The first thing that you can note here is that — contrary to what we might have understood at first glance — G-d doesn’t actually give Pinchas the title of Kohen. The words “Kohen” or “Kehuna” are nowhere to be found here, unless we count the fact that Pinchas is indeed referred to as the son of Aaron “the Kohen”. (And, by the way, just to clarify: the reason why Pinchas was not already a Kohen as the grandson of Aaron HaKohen is that only descendants of Aaron who were to be born after G-d established the institution of priesthood were to automatically become kohanim at birth. However, Pinchas had already been born at that time, and thus he was not included in G-d’s initial appointment.)

So, back to our question: What is G-d actually saying at the beginning of our parsha? He says that He is giving Pinchas “His covenant of peace”, but what does that actually mean? The answer is simple: while Pinchas’ act of violence may have been acceptable, even praiseworthy after the fact, given the circumstances and the stakes at hand – the path that should have been chosen in the first place, the only path that actually leads to closeness to G-d is the way of PEACE.

In our parsha, Pinchas is promised that. However, as we will soon see, he will need to work quite a lot to actually make this promise come to fruition…

In the Book of Joshua, chapter 22, there is an episode that sheds light on our parsha. There, we are told that two and a half tribes, Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe are about to be attacked by their own brothers, the other nine and a half tribes of Israel. The reason? After assisting the nation to take the land of Israel in possession, the two and a half tribes had returned to other side of the Jordan River where they had chosen to establish their home, and they built a large altar there. Believing that they were actually practising avodah zarah, that they were abandoning G-d and turning to idol worship, the other tribes are ready to wage war.

And who is sent as the leader of a delegation whose task was to try and broker peace? Well, a familiar name is mentioned:

“And Bnei Israel sent unto the the sons of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe, into the land of Gilad, Pinchas ben Eleazar HaKohen and with him ten leaders, one each of their father’s house for all the tribes of Israel.” – Joshua 22:13-14

This is the first moment when we see in action the other side of Pinchas, the one discussed in this week’s parsha. This is when we actually witness him not as a zealot, not as a warrior, but as a peace broker, as a man who understands the value of life and seeks to preserve it. This is the first moment when he is also – though the text doesn’t explicitly say it – the descendant of Aaron about whom our sages have said in Pirkei Avot that he was “ohev shalom verodef shalom”, a man who loved peace and constantly ran after peace.

But this is only the beginning…

In a beautiful midrash in Yalkut Shimoni, an aggadic compilation of midrashim on the books of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbis make a quite astounding assertion: “Pinchas is Eliyahu, Elijah the Prophet.”

Now, this statement cannot be understood literally, for obvious reasons. For once, Pinchas and Elijah lived at completely different times; they had different stories recorded in the Tanakh; one was a Kohen, the other a prophet. But they did share one particular attribute that, placed in the proper context, was sufficient for the rabbis of the midrash to conclude that there is indeed a great deal of similarity between them: the attribute of religious zealotry. Trying to convince the Jewish nation to renounce idolatry, Eliyahu asks G-d to stop sending rain and, after three years of drought and famine, challenges the false prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel. There, he mocks the idol worshippers and then, once the contest is won, he kills the false prophets with his sword. Just like Pinchas, he is a zealot for G-d, and he kills in the name of G-d, in a moment of religious crisis. And then — the story tells us in Sefer Melakhim 19:9-12 — Eliyahu runs and hides into a cave and has a religious vision:

And he came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him: What are you doing here, Eliyahu? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord G-d of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And God said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice — Melakhim I, 19: 9-12

This famous episode is also the one Elijah actually failed at. In his zealotry, Elijah never understood the message of the story: that G-d is not in the hurricane, and He is not in the earthquake, and He is not in the fire, but in the “still small voice” where He is perhaps least to be expected. A man of action and power, Elijah fails to understand that force in all its forms – the forces of nature, the force of religious zealotry, the force of violence in the name of G-d – is actually not the path that G-d has chosen to identify with. Instead, Hashem is the G-d of peace, of softness, of love, the G-d of mercy and compassion and dialogue, of peaceful resolution to conflict, the G-d of communication and understanding.

It is not by chance that Eliyahu, the symbol of zealotry, is also the one who – in our tradition – comes as a symbolic guest to every Seder night and every Brit Milah (circumcision). On Pesach night, when we open the door for Eliyahu, we recite a very harsh couple of verses: “Shefoch hamatcha” “Pour out Your wrath on the nations who do not know You, G-d.” It is a paragraph that was introduced in the Haggadah after the Middle Age crusades which left thousands of Jewish homes in mourning. But what is key here is that we are not the ones carrying out any vengeance or retaliation for those cruel deeds. We are asking G-d to judge and decide instead, in His infinite wisdom, when punishment is due and what it should be, and when zealotry or strict justice should trump mercy. Eliyahu is present at that very moment, to remind us that once upon a time, he did not understand G-d’s message. And he is present also at every circumcision, the only time in the Jewish tradition when blood is allowed to be drawn in the name of religion. In all other cases – as were the cases in Eliyahu’s and in Pinchas’ time – Judaism proclaims that G-d does not want to see blood drawn by human hands, and certainly not as an act done on His behalf.

Pinchas is Eliyahu in his zealotry, in his determination to fight and even kill for G-d, but G-d is teaching him that what he should be focusing instead is peace. Not until he stands up for peace, as he did in his dealing with the two and a half tribes in the Book of Joshua, does he earn what G-d promises him in this week’s parsha: את בריתי שלום — “Hashem’s covenant of peace”.

The model of Pinchas, his journey from religious zealotry to internalizing G-d’s covenant of peace are ideas that the world today desperately needs to understand. His story is one that should inspire many who today still erroneously claim that violence is “what G-d wants from us”. Instead of bloodshed and war, instead of living by the sword, G-d really wants the path to peace. Or, as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has simply put it in his most recent book:

Too many times in the history of religion, people have killed in the name of the G-d of life, waged war in the name of the G-d of peace, hated in the name of the G-d of love and practised cruelty in the name of the G-d of compassion. When this happens, G-d speaks, sometimes in a still, small voice almost inaudible beneath the clamour of those claiming to speak on His behalf. What He says at such times is: Not in My Name. – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Not in G-d’s Name” (p.3)

May the world hear and take heed!

Shabbat Shalom!

— Offered at Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC

Share This