A three-year-old girl was suffering from a rare disease, and she desperately needed a bone-marrow donation to survive. Her parents were thrilled when they found out that her older brother, who was eight, was an exact match. The doctor explained the situation to her brother and asked if the young boy would be willing to give his bone marrow to his sister. He hesitated, only for a moment, before he took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I will do it if it will save my sister.”
As the process began, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, seeing the color returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the nurse beside him and asked in a trembling voice, “When will I start to die?”
The young boy had misunderstood the doctor. He thought he had to give up his own life to save his sick sister.
A True Hero?
Throughout the Torah, there are many heroes with awe-inspiring ascents to greatness. When we think of Moshe, we picture a burning bush, a dramatic confrontation with Pharaoh, and a spectacular splitting of the Yam Suf. When we consider Avraham, we imagine a man thrown into the flames, undergoing bris milah at the age of a hundred, and the willingness to sacrifice his designated son on the altar. However, when we think of Pinchas, what do we see? The image is hazy, evoking conflicting emotions and begging for explanation. Let us start from the very beginning of the story.
After Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish people failed, he tried to sway their loyalty through the enticement of harlots. The Jewish people began committing not only the sin of z’nus (promiscuity) but idolatry as well. Pinchas, upon seeing Zimri’s public act of brazenness with Kozbi (the Midianite woman), grabs a spear and pierces them both (Bamidbar 25:7-8).
This alarming sequence of events sets off an uproar. The Jewish people are astounded by Pinchas’ actions and degrade him viciously for it. They point out that Pinchas is the grandson of Aharon HaKohen, who facilitated the creation of the egel ha’zahav, the centerpiece of the worst sin in Jewish history (Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 25:11). He was also the grandson of Yisro, someone who used to be a priest of idolatry (Rashi, Bamidbar 25:11). They used this lineage as a basis to challenge Pinchas’s intentions, claiming an undertone of hypocrisy to his rebuke. How, they asked, could a person of such descent punish a Nasi of Bnei Yisrael so harshly? What right did he have?
However, Hashem quickly justified Pinchas’s act, showing its extreme merit by rewarding him with the bris shalom and bris kehuna. The bris kehuna granted Pinchas status as a Kohen, something he lacked before this point. Although Pinchas was descended from Aharon HaKohen, he was born before Hashem conferred the kehuna upon Aharon and his sons and was not included amongst those appointed. Although future offspring of Aharon and his sons inherited the kehuna, Aharon’s existing grandchildren did not. However, after Pinchas’s act of valor, Hashem Himself awarded Pinchas the status of Kohen as well. This, however, requires some explaining.
What is the deeper meaning behind these two berachos, and why did Pinchas deserve them specifically in response to his actions with Kozbi and Zimri? And, perhaps more importantly, why was Pinchas’s act of killing even considered heroic? It appears to be violent and rash, perhaps even worthy of criticism. Why, then, was it rewarded, and so handsomely at that? Let us try to explain the deep principles behind this episode.
The Middah of Zealotry
The Torah describes Pinchas’ act as one of “kin’ah,” or zealotry (Bamidbar 25:11). A zealot is one who acts with passion and fervor, an attribute that can easily become radical or extreme. This middah features prominently in the Torah both in the case of Pinchas, and earlier with Shimon and Levi in their behavior toward Shechem (Bereishis, chap. 34). After Shechem violates their sister, Dinah, Shimon and Levi take revenge by brutally wiping out his entire city. Yaakov immediately rebukes them for this rash act, and later curses their anger when giving the Shevatim berachos at the end of his life (Bereishis 34:30, 49:5-7). Shimon and Levi defend themselves by claiming that they stood up for their sister, and perhaps, in a sense, all of Klal Yisrael, as the entire Jewish nation was cast in a bad light when Dinah was violated. However, Shimon and Levi are clearly criticized for their extreme reaction, suggesting a negative quality to their zealotry. Pinchas expresses this same attribute of zealotry, spontaneously killing a leader of the Jewish people, and yet he is exceedingly praised and rewarded for doing so. What is the difference between their actions?
A puzzling feature of the story of Pinchas and Zimri is the striking omission of Zimri’s name from the story as it is first told in Parashas Balak. Only afterwards, when recounting the story again in Parashas Pinchas, does the Torah name the perpetrator of this evil act. Why is this so?
It can be suggested that Zimri’s name is omitted to exclude the possibility that Pinchas’s act was spurred by emotion or a need for personal vengeance. Pinchas had no vendetta against Zimri; no vested interest in killing him. The Torah omits Zimri’s name in order to highlight the fact that Pinchas would have killed whomever committed this sin, regardless of who it was. Pinchas acted only out of love and devotion for Hashem, with absolutely no personal motivation.
Further proof of Pinchas’s pure intentions involves the concept of rodef (a pursuer). (A full discussion and analysis of the concept of rodef is beyond the scope of this article.) Simply put, the principle of rodef allows one to rise up and kill an attacker before the attacker can kill him. According to several opinions, since Zimri was not yet chayav missah (sentenced to death) for his actions, Pinchas would be considered a rodef for trying to kill him. Consequently, Zimri would have been legally allowed to preemptively kill Pinchas first. Thus, by attacking Zimri, Pinchas put his own life in jeopardy, showing the complete altruism driving his actions. This is the distinction between the actions of Pinchas and those of Shimon and Levi. While Shimon and Levi acted at least in part due to personal anger, as evidenced by Yaakov’s criticism, Pinchas’s zealotry was entirely righteous.
The fine line that determines whether zealotry is positive is the intention behind this passion. The outer expression of raw emotion and ego can appear identical to the genuine, selfless desire to act on behalf of Hashem. The differentiating factor that separates ego from idealistic passion is one’s inner, true intentions. A person who is truly zealous on behalf of Hashem is so consumed by love for their Creator that their actions are driven completely by that love and passion, without any personal feelings attached.
In the text of the Torah itself, it seems as though Pinchas acted spontaneously with no hesitation, consultation, or affirmation whatsoever. However, Rashi, quoting the Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a), explains that Pinchas did indeed consult first with Moshe before passionately executing Kozbi and Zimri. This would limit his extreme zealotry to a more calculated and rational passion. Other opinions, though, state that Pinchas did not hesitate, acting immediately and independently. This would explain why it was so important for Hashem to clarify that Pinchas’s action was indeed an act of heroism and not an inappropriately passionate act of murder. This could also be an interesting reason for the layout of the parshiyos, for although Pinchas’s act of zealotry actually occurred in the previous parasha, Parashas Balak, the praise and reward are not granted until this parasha, Parashas Pinchas. This reflects the confusion that Klal Yisrael experienced surrounding the action. Only in this parasha, once Hashem clarified Pinchas’s proper intentions, was it retroactively indisputable that Pinchas acted heroically.
This emphasis on intention is particularly striking when viewing the story of Shimon and Levi and that of Pinchas side by side. Zimri was the Nasi of the tribe of Shimon, while Pinchas was from the tribe of Levi. Shimon and Levi originally acted with extreme passion and were criticized for doing so. Here, their descendants seem to be repeating their legacy. Zimri and Pinchas both acted out of passion, with Zimri brazenly committing a sin and Pinchas dramatically killing him. The difference between them was that Pinchas learned to use the middah of kin’ah correctly, controlling his emotion and passion, while Zimri failed and was controlled by it.
Negating His Ego
The Kli Yakar explains that by engaging in this act of zealotry, Pinchas had to completely negate his ego and disregard his public image and reputation (Bamidbar 25:11). He was willing to undergo the embarrassment and ridicule of those who claimed that his own father married the daughter of an idol-worshipper (Yisro) and that his grandfather was involved in the egel ha’zahav (Aharon). These claims were an attempt to show that Pinchas was unworthy of condemning Zimri’s act. Nevertheless, Pinchas was willing to sacrifice his reputation to do what he knew was right and to uphold the truth. In doing so, he would face backlash from those who did not understand him, but that did not deter him from standing up for what he knew was right.
After studying Pinchas’ action in more depth, we can now explain the beauty of the two gifts that Pinchas was awarded. The first was the bris kehuna, an opportunity to join the rest of his family in performing the avodah in the Mishkan. Why was this gift so befitting?
One could suggest that this was simply a generous reward for a heroic act, without intrinsic meaning. One could go even further and say that since Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon HaKohen, this was a very fitting gift, as he could now join the rest of his family in performing the avodah in the Mishkan. To take it a step deeper, perhaps Pinchas was already somewhat a Kohen, due to his spiritual genetics, and once he showed his love and devotion for Hashem, that potential within him was activated, and he emerged as the Kohen he was already capable of becoming. While these are all beautiful answers, I would like to suggest an even deeper approach.
The Role of a Kohen
Kohanim serve to foster the connection between both Hashem and this world, and between Hashem and the Jewish people. Through the avodah in the Mikdash (service in the Temple), the Kohanim connect the physical and spiritual, as well as the Jewish people to their Source.
There are many layers of expression within this idea. As we have discussed previously, the Maharal explains that seven is the number of the natural (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25). This is why all physical and natural components of this world are built off sevens: seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light. Eight represents going beyond the natural, which is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day; we take the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and use it to transcend. This is also why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days. (This is also why it occurred through shemen (oil), the same shoresh as shemonah, the number eight.) It is therefore no surprise that the gematria of “kohen” is seventy-five, the number directly between seventy and eighty. The Kohen’s role is to connect the higher and lower, the spiritual and physical, and the infinite and finite. This is achieved specifically in the Beis HaMikdash (or Mishkan), the place of connection.
By killing Zimri and putting a stop to the rampant sinning occurring within Klal Yisrael, Pinchas both prevented further sin and was mechaper (atoned) for their past sins, thereby putting an end to the mageifah (plague). This is the exact role of the Kohen: to help atone for sin and maintain the Jewish people’s connection with Hashem. In doing so, Pinchas earned his right to be a Kohen. Kehuna was not an arbitrary gift; it was the positive consequence of the person Pinchas chose to become – a zealot for Hashem. In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to understand the story of Pinchas on an even deeper level. May we be inspired to always strive for the higher truth, to stand up for what we know is right, and to live a life devoted to Hashem.