Pinchas - Seize A Lifetime, Reach for the Infinite

by Rebbetzin Malkah

We all have met one.  One who is crying out in the wilderness, trying to get our attention to change our ways and show us that everything we are doing is totally wrong.  We usually listen the first time, and then let their words take flight on the wind.  Why?  Their words eat at our very core and draw lines of division between us and "them."  Who are these voices?  They are the zealots of every religious institution - the ones who seek to get to the heart of the very evil in their midst (which is all of us).

As we enter this week's parasha, the previous week's happenings are still looming in our mind:  a festive venue of Midianite and Moabite women have seduced the Children of Israel into idolatry.  After the tribal prince of Shimon brings a Midianite woman before Moshe and publicly holds relations in front of Moshe and the elders, Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon, sets out to stop the raging plague and rebellion.  Entering the tent of Zimri, he takes both the lives of Zimri and Cozbi, a Midianite princess without pomp and circumstance.  With this, he is blessed by Hashem with a new covenant - a Brit Shalom- for all time and to bring everlasting priesthood to his descendants.  What appears as a zealous endeavor to quench the wrath of Hashem becomes a redeeming act for all of Am Yisrael. And Pinchas restores the connection between Hashem and His people in a manner contrary to most zealots—by acting for the sake of peace in order to reopen a channel to the Heavens.

Wanted: Zealot?

So what spurred the behavior of Pinchas, as everyone was enjoying themselves and caught up in the revelry?  Was it the weeping of Moshe and the elders that provoked Pinchas to act?  Did he feel as if the leadership was caught off guard by the blatant disregard for Hashem's command and the horrors it was witnessing?  Whatever it was, Pinchas acted solely, quickly and without self-seeking motives.  He superceded the leadership in place to act purely l'shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). The Brit Shalom that Pinchas and his descendants were awarded with was appropriate because Pinchas sought to bring peace between man and G-d immediately.  As Aharon sought to bring peace between and man and man, and Pinchas between G-d and man, together, they both were worthy of the calling to be true kohanim.  But wasn't Pinchas guaranteed this calling of priesthood if his father was Elazar, and his grandfather Aharon?  Yes and no.  The problem arises due to the fact that on his mother's side was a lineage of idol worship (the Talmud indicates that his mother was a daughter of Jethro, a Midianite); this would invariably make his inheritance of priesthood nullified.  However, with Pinchas' noble act and Hashem's covenant, the issue of this inheritance is settled for all eternity.

What makes the act of Pinchas so surprising is that his act of zealotry defied what most zealotry exhibits.  His action included none of the usual traits of zealotry—such as selfishness , a brand of arrogance, and a thirst for power.  He barely had time to think before he acted.  It is important to understand that what separates his motivation to do this from an every day pre-mediated act is this:  he wouldn't have done it had he given it a second thought.  Why?  While the Torah usually spares us the names of those who have transgressed (remember our man on Shabbat, picking up sticks), in this case the Torah illuminates the offenders to show how great was the deed of Pinchas.  Zimri was no ordinary man.  He was a prince, a leader in the tribe of Shimon.  And his harlot, Cozbi, was none less than a princess of the Midianites.  Surely, had Pinchas pondered the outcome of his feat he would have realized that he would be in the social trenches and shunned.  For him to cross all leadership boundaries and murder two individuals of stature would inevitably cause him to be an outcast.  However, having a desire to serve Hashem entirely and having witnessed Aharon's desire to save the people in the past during plagues, he acted nobly.  His examples before him allowed him to be informed of the right way to respond.

R. Simeon said: "Great was the love G-d showed to Israel in that He revealed Himself in a place of idol-worship, immorality, and uncleanness in order to redeem them. He was like a priest whose terumah had fallen into a cemetery, and who said to himself: ‘What shall I do? To make myself unclean is impossible, and to leave the terumah there is also impossible. Better for me to make myself unclean once and then purify myself again, so that I do not lose my terumah altogether.'" (Midrash Rabbah - Exodus XV:5)

While Aharon exemplified this model as he ran through the camp with his incense pan to stand between the living and the dead, so too did Pinchas place himself between the living and the dead to stop the plague.  The Rambam, in his philosophical work Moreh Nevuchim (1:36), asserts that sexual morality is a base upon which Jewish holiness is built;  the only times that the Torah speaks of Hashem's anger as ‘wrath', is when it is provoked by immorality among the Children of Israel. Thus when the Moabites failed to fulfill their plan of cursing Israel, they used the ultimate weapon: they strained the relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael by tempting them into a venue of shameless and licentious behavior.  Pinchas knew that a swift and certain death to a corrupt leader would be the only hope to stop the idolatry and harlotry and appease G-d's wrath.

A Tribe's Eternal Calling

But where does this zealotry come from?  We hear nothing about Pinchas prior to this incident.  Our sages allude that this divine zealotry traces back to the sin of the Golden Calf, when the tribe of Levi stepped forward to exact judgment on all who worshipped the calf.

"Moses stood at the gateway of the camp, and said: ‘Whoever is for Hashem, join me!' - and all the Levites gathered around him.  He said to them, ‘So said Hashem the G-d of Israel, ‘Every man, put his sword on his thigh and pass back and forth from gate to gate in the camp.  Let every man kill his brother, every man his fellow, and every man his near one.'"  The Levites did as Moses said, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. (Shemot 32: 26 - 28)

So it appears that within the tribe of Levi, there existed a devotion that would act on cue when necessary.  The right reason and the timing were critical for the tribe of Levi:  the very nature of their job depended on the fact that there was one G-d to worship and that false gods had no place in Hashem's economy.  If idols were allowed, not only would falsehood, self-rule and selfishness exist, but there would be no reason to have a Mishkan, nullifying and the inheritance of the priesthood would be nullified.  They were given for all time the desire to quash idolatry and promote the G-d of the Universe.  The priesthood based their loyalty on that which they could not tangibly see—a greater power and ideal, the infinite.

But why fight idolatry so proactively?  The very problem with idolatry is that it uses our eyes and focuses on that which we can see.  The eyes present each of us with attractive, finite images.  When we follow our eyes to those things which we can see, we are betrayed by a vision of mere limited physicality.  Defying that ideal and sacrificing everything for it—especially in Pinchas' case—shows us that by elevating the Divine, that which we can't see, offers so much more opportunity to connect with something greater and unseen.  For left to our own devices, ultimately we would follow the path of the Midianites and Moabites.  Pinchas' stepping out lifted the eyes of the Children of Israel heavenward and ultimately saved them.  For that, G-d grants him and eternal lineage and his name immortality.

Pinchas, Eliyahu - Eliyahu, Pinchas?

At Mount Carmel, in a time much advanced after King David, the prophet Eliyahu asks the people: "For how long will you hesitate between the choices?" (I Melakhim 18:21) Eliyahu asks the question, and the people fail to respond.  They were incapable because their hearts had been dulled by idolatry.  They were in their throws of harlotry with Ba'al as well.  They neglected to see the need to band together and throw off the yoke of Ba'al worship.  In essence, they became victims of the same phenomena as the Children of Israel during the time of Pinchas—albeit more entrenched.  Because they lacked the desire to follow the Torah, and connect with Hashemt, they brought a tremendous drought upon the land.  The chasm between heaven and earth was great, yet G-d chose Eliyahu to be an agent to spearhead change.  Like Pinchas, he was willing to exact judgment in order to stop the drought and cause the people to return to Hashem.

Because of their similar spirits and actions, the Sages pose that Eliyahu and Pinchas are one.  And like Eliyahu, But our sages allude that Pinchas never died.  What makes our sages claim that Pinchas never died?  Because his spirit shows up in Eliyahu and their goals were one.

"Pinchas still exists." (Yalkut Shimoni 772)

"Said Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Pinchas is Eliyahu. The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to him, you brought peace between Israel and myself in this world, so in the future you will bring peace between myself and my sons, as is written, "Behold I send you Eliyahu the Prophet before the arrival of the day of the Lord . . . and He shall reconcile parents with children." (Yalkut Shimoni).

Eliyahu is portrayed as a zealous prophet who says of himself "I am zealous for the Lord" (I Melakim 19:10).  Eliyahu even laments before G-d, "for the children of Israel has violated your covenant . . . and I alone have remained." (10-11).  What makes Eliyahu's story a mirror of Pinchas' is the very fact that he goes against leaders of the land - King Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  His very life is sought and he remains an entity unto his own.  Indeed, through his very actions of slaying of prophets of Ba'al, he becomes unpopular but at the same time makes himself an emissary of peace between G-d and man:

"And Elijah said unto them: 'Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.' And they took them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there (I Melakim 18:40)

Elijah was spared death and granted immortality for his fight against idolatry.  Through his zealotry and desire for the Children of Israel to have peace between them and Hashem, he was rewarded with a ride into the Heavens on a chariot and the ability to be a link between both worlds.  Eliyahu frequently appears before the Sages of the Midrash and the Talmud, always in the guise of a comfortable inhabitant of both worlds and as a link between them.  He is welcomed at our Seders, is said to be at each bris, and is present before a person passes from this world.  He is that link between our world and the heavenly realm, the one who will come before the Messiah returns to repair the breach between G-d and man.  Indeed, the spirit of Pinchas is that which is in Eliyahu; this bridge of peace arch that they represent allows us to pass through and remain connected to both worlds.

The Spirit of Eliyahu

So where do we go from here?  It is vital to understand that Pinchas and Eliyahu are actually the exception to the rule; no society can survive if each and every person takes the law into his/her own hands.  But are there more subtle ways of responding to dealings which we know are wrong and are blatantly before us.  While Pinchas and Eliyahu displayed unfettered zealotry, there was also a spirit of peace supporting those measures.  When we strive to modify our surroundings in a mode of peace and strength, we will find that we won't have to tear down the house to fix it.  We can gently exact change while being firm in our convictions.  This will not only allow those around us to coexist, but to gain strength and flourish from our endeavors.

Each of us has had contact with a pure zealot and we know the limited effect that person has on their surroundings.  Usually that person is very strong-willed and somewhat untamed.  More often than not, that person will get one shot to be heard and then will be ignored.  But a person with integrity and a strong desire to bring about change through peaceful means will go much further and be heard more often.  The enthusiasm which we can display, tempered by humility and diligence, will gather more followers and give more honor to the Holy One than unleashed passionate displays of commitment.

Our purpose in Hashem's creation is achieved by the merging of our spiritual self with the realities of the physical world. At times, it is necessary to lower one's self from the spiritual heights and confront the physical dimension of Olam HaZeh (this world) as Pinchas and Eliyahu did. But, this is a test, not the norm, and not necessarily a mitzvah.  We are instructed from the Psalms to "Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it." (Tehillim 34:14) How we do this is entirely a product of self control and the innate desire to see G-d's presence remain among us.  Zealotry, not tempered with a spirit of peace, will lead to those around us ignoring what we say and do.  When we promote passion for Hashem through peace, all that we do will be immortalized and link this world to the next.  May the spirit of Pinchas/Eliyahu inspire us and renew our strength and fervor.

Shabbat Shalom....

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