Skip to content

Parashat Pinchas 5778 — 07/07/2018

Parashat Pinchas 5778 — 07/07/2018

Bamidbar 25:10-30:1

The story of Pinchas ben Eliezer ben Aharon Kohen Gadol begins at the end of the previous parashah. In a fit of communal madness, a large number of men, apparently mostly from the tribe of Shimon, allow themselves to be enticed into debauchery and idolatry by the women of Midian, Bil’am’s people. Bil’am, frustrated by the fact that Gd would not allow him to curse the Jewish people, realizes that the only way to get to the nation was to cause them to sin, thereby forfeiting Gd’s protection, at least to a certain extent. He convinced the Midianites to sacrifice the chastity of their women on the altar of destroying Israel. To give you an idea how outrageous this was, consider the use of rape as a weapon of war in the conflicts in the Middle East, where in many cases social mores have not changed since Biblical times. Shimon and Levi destroyed the city of Shechem in revenge for their sister’s having been raped by the prince of Shechem, even though he sought to right the situation by marrying her.

Abarbanel points out that for his action Pinchas received two rewards: he got a “Covenant of Peace” from Gd, as well as the priesthood (and many Kohanim Gedolim descended from him). Both of these require some explanation.

Why did Pinchas need a “Covenant of Peace”? Abarbanel states that anyone who avoids transgression is rewarded with such a covenant! Abarbanel explains that what is meant here is that this “Covenant of Peace” was to be publicized to the community, so the family members of Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Shimon, would not exact revenge from Pinchas.

And what about the priesthood? Wasn’t Pinchas a descendant of Aharon, and therefore automatically a priest? It turns out that it isn’t so simple. Moshe was instructed to anoint his brother Aharon and Aharon’s four sons: Nadav, Avihu, Elazar and Ithamar as kohanim. Any of their descendants born from that time forth would automatically be kohanim. Unfortunately, no provision was made for Pinchas, who was already born. He was not anointed, as the Torah explicitly states “Aharon and his sons,” yet he did not automatically become a kohen, since he was already born.

It turns out that this worked to his advantage. Jewish law mandates that a kohen who kills someone, even inadvertently, can no longer serve in the Temple. (Nowadays there is no Temple, but the kohanim still have certain duties and privileges. There is an exception made for soldiers, at least in the Israel Defense Forces.) Now Pinchas killed Zimri, and of course it was no accident. However he was not a kohen at the time, and the rule didn’t apply to him. Only afterwards was he made a kohen, which, apparently, wiped that particular slate clean. I heard in a lecture by R. Frand the following conclusion. Think how Pinchas must have felt, watching his father, his uncles and his grandfather all serving Gd in the Mishkan, and he was left out in the cold. This went on for almost 40 years! Nevertheless, he threw himself into the service of Gd and of the community, culminating in the action he took against Zimri. At this point, Gd made him a kohen, when it was “safe” to do so. R. Frand concluded, how often do we think life is unfair, when if we get a broader perspective we see that Gd works things out for our greatest growth and evolution.

I want to turn back now to the Covenant of Peace. The Hebrew word for “peace” is shalom. The root of the word shalom is sh-l-m, which means wholeness. So really Gd is promising Pinchas a life of wholeness. There is a bit of a fly in the ointment however. In the Torah scroll, the word shalom (spelled sh-l-o-m) is written with a “cut vav” (the vav is vocalized “o” in this word). The vav is basically a vertical line, but this vav has a break in it, like a slash through the middle of the letter. So Gd gives Pinchas a “Covenant of Wholeness,” but the Wholeness is somehow diminished a bit. How can we understand this?
I think it is related to the rule about the priesthood that Pinchas fortunately was able to dodge. The purpose of the priesthood is to bring a union between Gd and both the individual and the community of Israel. This is a very great level of wholeness – the fullness of Gd uniting, ideally, with the perfected fullness of the one bringing the offering. As we have mentioned often, the root of the word for offering, korban, is k-r-v, to come close. In the desert the offerings were made in the Tabernacle. When the kingdom was established, the Temple was built in Jerusalem. King David was the one who first desired to build the Temple, but Gd did not allow him to do so, for he was a warrior and had killed people. He was not the one to bring this level of wholeness into the world. Rather, it was his son, Solomon, Shlomo, from the root for wholeness, who would complete the task his father had lovingly prepared for.

Pinchas most certainly brought wholeness back to a broken people by his bold act, and for this he is awarded the priesthood. Nonetheless, it was an act that came at a terrible price – he had to kill two people. Had he already been a kohen, he no longer would have been able to officiate in the Tabernacle, because his own wholeness had been shattered to such an extent by his act that he could not bring this wholeness to others. Therefore, besides the priesthood, Gd gives him the Covenant of Wholeness – he repairs Pinchas’ internal wholeness to the point that he can now officiate. Yet, one piece of his wholeness is not quite repaired, and never will be. His vav is cut in two. Perhaps, due to our physical nature, we can never achieve the level of complete wholeness. “For a man cannot see My face and live.” We can, however always strive to be more whole every day!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Pinchas

The central event in this parshah is Gd’s fulfilling Moses’ request to appoint someone to lead B’nei Israel into the Promised Land — since Gd will not let Moses enter. Gd tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua so that some of Moses’ spirit will enter Joshua and Joshua will be able to lead the people into the physical Promised Land. According to the Gemara the elders of the generation called this a “great embarrassment,” that Joshua was like the moon whereas Moses was like the sun.

If the Gemara is correct then the question arises, “Why did Gd appoint a leader who was less than Moses; who had only part of Moses’ spirit?”

Perhaps Moses did not need to enter the Promised Land to experience Teshuvah — he already had it, being soaked in Gd’s Presence as he was.

The Children of Israel, however, including Joshua did need to enter the Promised Land in order to be fully aware of Gd’s Presence. If all of Moses’ spirit were given to Joshua, then he also would have no need to enter the Promised Land and the people would have no leader.

What can this mean in our lives?

The Promised Land is within us even when we are acting in the (relative) desert that is the ordinary life of human beings. The qualities of our awareness that are less than full — our thoughts, our feelings, our sensory awareness — lead us to the Wholeness, the Promised Land that transcends them and pervades them.

These thoughts, feelings and sensory awareness are like Joshua — they allow us, through use, through practice, to experience more and more refined levels of them and eventually (Dear Gd, Please! Now!) to experience the Promised Land, the Wholeness, the Oneness in which Torah and Gd and all we experience as our own Self, as One.

Now, please, Now!

Baruch HaShem