Table for Five: Pinchas

Did God's reward for Pinchas contain a reprimand as well?
June 30, 2021

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.”

-Num 25:11-12

Rabbi Pinchas Winston

Who was Eliyahu the prophet’s father and mother? Before you think too hard, it is a trick question. He didn’t have any. He didn’t? Then how was he born? He wasn’t. He actually originated as someone else, who morphed into the famous prophet we welcome each Seder night on Pesach, and who will herald the final redemption. As the Ba’al Haturim says at the beginning of this week’s reading: Eliyahu, this was Pinchas.

According to tradition, Pinchas merited to become the prophet after his act of zealousness at the end of last week’s parsha. The question is, how? The answer is reincarnation which, yes, we believe in very much. There are two types. The first is when a person’s soul returns to a new body and gives it life. The second is when an “additional” soul comes to a person who is already living. In the first case, if the soul leaves the person does too. In the second case, the soul can come and go and the person will remain alive. Instead of Eliyahu’s soul being born inside a person, it went to Pinchas who was already alive, and transformed him into Eliyahu the prophet.

Pinchas was not the first one to get such help in life to transcend his limitations, or the last one. Anyone can draw down an extra soul if they sincerely want to accomplish a lot spiritually. The benefits are tremendous, as will be a person’s accomplishments. Eliyahu a.k.a. Pinchas makes that clear.

Judy Gruen
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith”

Zealots and heathens and spears, oh my! (With apologies to the Wizard of Oz.) At the conclusion of the previous parsha (Balak), Pinchas performed an act of vigilante justice. Watching as a Jewish man dared to have relations in full public view with an idolatrous Midianite woman, Pinchas grabbed a spear and executed them while they were in flagrante delicto. It was a moment of extreme danger for the Jewish people. The rampant idolatry and sexual immorality consuming the Jewish people had resulted in a plague killing 24,000. After Pinchas’ action, the plague ended.

Pinchas becomes known as a zealot, but is it a compliment? Naturally, it’s complicated.

God’s morality is strict, but it also includes safeguards against people acting extrajudicially. Pinchas’ action was also controversial. In his time, he was both lauded for having saved lives but also targeted for excommunication. Though Pinchas took an extreme action outside the law, it was for God’s honor and the communal good, not for personal vengeance.

Still, his act was dangerous; Hashem could not allow it to happen again. As both protection and reward, Hashem gave Pinchas His covenant of peace –he was made a kohen, like his grandfather Aaron. The kohanim are strongly associated with peace—they bless the people communally with the blessing of peace at the end of the Amidah on holidays. Indeed, later on, in the Book of Joshua, Pinchas’ diplomacy negotiating with the tribes over land settlements in Israel will prevent war.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

In the weeks before my first summer as a counselor at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, I was informed by the administration that one of the eleven-year-old boys in my bunk was likely to be scapegoated, and they taught me some ways of dealing with that. Sure enough, on the third day of the season, one of the boys began what was clearly going to be scapegoating of that boy. Another boy in the bunk, though – I will call him Larry – broke into the conversation and said, “No, we are not going to do that. That is not who we are or want to be.” The boy about whom I was warned had many problems during the summer, but scapegoating was not one of them, thanks to Larry, who later became a Professor of Social Work at a prestigious university.

We rightly applaud Larry’s kind of moral courage. Sometimes we see it when people stand up for their own moral claims, as Rosa Parks did on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, and in doing so they encourage others to do so as well. Sometimes people establish or defend the rights of others, as President Truman did in integrating the troops. Pinchas, though, kills someone in order to correct a violation of the law. God approves, but I am not so sure. Do we really want everyone to take the law in their own hands to that extent? We definitely want Larry among us; do we really want Pinchas?

Kylie Ora Lobell
Jewish Journal, Contributing Writer

Pinchas is one of the great role models in the Torah. He sees that the Jewish people are dying because they are engaging in idol worship and sinning with the daughters of Midian. By killing Zimri and the Midianite princess, he singlehandedly stops the plague. Today, cause and effect is not clear like it was in the Torah, and of course, we have no right to take somebody else’s life like Pinchas did. However, we can be like Pinchas when we stand up for what’s right and fight against what’s wrong in this world.

If we see somebody stealing, we can report it to the police. If someone is spreading anti-Israel propaganda, we can confront them. If we catch ourselves speaking lashon hara, we can stop and switch to a more positive topic of conversation instead. Today, it can certainly be difficult to fight for what’s right when society’s values are ever changing, and our values may seem “old-fashioned.” Plus, if you say the “wrong” thing, you can lose your job, your social status, and your dignity thanks to cancel culture. But if there is a plague of bad ideas going around, and you know in your gut that something is wrong, how can you not speak up?

The short-time consequences may be scary, but in the long run, much worse things could happen. Pinchas knew this and he was willing to take a chance. Are you going to stand up for what’s right like he did?

Hillary Chorny
Cantor/Temple Beth Am

The story of Pinchas begins with a flourish of violence. He is held up in the narrative of the Torah as a righteous actor who orchestrates a swift recovery of Israel’s morality in response to his intense and decisive act. The reward promised to Pinchas by God is a covenant of peace: a Brit Shalom.

Rashi, the prolific 11th century commentator, reads this as a gift of mutuality, an offer from God to Pinchas like a favor one would do for someone who had just done them a kindness in turn. As Pinchas had brought peace and restored wholeness to God’s people, so might he find wholeness.

I see in this Brit Shalom an instruction to Pinchas as well. Peace that is proffered through violence is tenuous and strained at best, and often comes at a terrible price. The Brit Shalom is an invitation to Pinchas that he might choose a more peaceful path for his ongoing leadership, one that promises sustained relationship between him and the Holy Blessed One.

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