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Pinchas: Standing Up For the Truth When No One Else Will

parsha sefer bamidbar Jun 29, 2021



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 (Red Sea). When we consider Avraham, we imagine a man thrown into the flames, undergoing bris milah at the age of a hundred, and the willingness 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 Parshas Pinchas, which follows immediately after the events of the previous parsha, Parshas Balak.

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 adultery, but idolatry as well. This culminates in the closing scene of the previous parsha, for which Parshas Pinchas is named. Pinchas, upon seeing Zimri's public act of brazenness with Kozbi (the Midyanite woman), grabs a spear and pierces them both.[1]

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 Ha'Kohen, who facilitated the creation of the egel ha'zahav (golden calf), the centerpiece of the worst sin in Jewish history.[2] He was also the grandson of Yisro, someone who used to be a priest of idolatry.[3] They used this lineage as a basis to challenge Pinchas' intentions, claiming an undertone of hypocrisy to his rebuke. How, they asked, could a person of such descent punish a Nasi (prince) of B'nei Yisrael so harshly? What right did he have?

However, Hashem quickly justified Pinchas' act, showing its extreme merit by rewarding him with the bris shalom and bris kehunah. The bris kehunah granted Pinchas status as a Kohen, something he lacked before this point. Although Pinchas was descended from Aharon Ha’kohen, he was born before Hashem conferred the kehunah upon Aharon and his sons and was not included amongst those appointed. Although future offspring of Aharon and his sons inherited the kehunah, Aharon’s existing grandchildren did not. However, after Pinchas' 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 brachos, and why did Pinchas deserve them specifically in response to his actions with Kozbi and Zimri? And, perhaps more importantly, why was Pinchas’ 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.[4] A zealot is one who acts with passion and fervor, an attribute that can easily become radical or extreme. This middah (character trait) features prominently in the Torah both in the case of Pinchas, and earlier with Shimon and Levi in their behavior towards Shechem.[5] After Shechem violates their sister, Dina, 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 brachos at the end of his life.[6] 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?


Completely Lishmah


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 Parshas Balak. Only afterwards, when recounting the story again in Parshas 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’ 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’ pure intentions involves the concept of rodef (a pursuer).[7] 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 chayiv 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’ 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.


True Zealousness

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,[8] 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' action was indeed an act of heroism, not an inappropriately passionate act of murder. This could also be an interesting reason for the layout of the parshios, for although Pinchas' act of zealotry actually occurred in the previous parsha, Parshas Balak, the praise and reward are not granted until this parsha, Parshas Pinchas. This reflects the confusion that Klal Yisrael experienced surrounding the action. Only in this parsha, once Hashem clarified Pinchas’ 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 (prince) 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[9] explains that by engaging in this act of zealotry, Pinchas had to completely negate his ego and disregard his public image and reputation. 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 eigel 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, 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.


Bris Kehunah


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 kehunah, 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 Ha'kohen, 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 (priests) serve to foster the connection between both Hashem and this world and Hashem and the Jewish People. Through the avodah in the mikdash (service in the temple), the kohanim connect the physical and spiritual, the Jewish People to their Source.[10]

There are many layers of expression within this idea. As we have discussed previously,[11] the Maharal[12] explains that seven is the number of the natural. 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.[13] It is therefore no surprise that the gematria (numerical value) of “kohen” is 75, the number directly between 70 and 80. The kohen's role is to connect the higher and lower, the spiritual and physical, the infinite and finite. This is achieved specifically in the Beis Ha'Mikdash (or Mishkan), the place of connection.[14]

By killing Zimri and putting a stop to the rampant sin amongst Klal Yisrael, Pinchas both prevented further sin and was mechaper (atoned) for their past sins, thereby putting an end to the mageiphah (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. Kehunah was not an arbitrary gift, it was the positive consequence of the person Pinchas chose to become- a zealot for Hashem.


Bris Shalom


In addition to the bris kehunah, Pinchas was granted the bris shalom. There are several ways to understand the meaning and significance of the bris shalom. On the most basic level, we can suggest that the bracha of shalom is meant to signify the result that Pinchas created. Hashem had brought a plague upon Klal Yisrael for their immoral behavior, and it would have killed many more Jews had Pinchas not intervened. By killing Zimri, Pinchas pacified Hashem's anger and brought shalom (peace) between Hashem and Klal Yisrael. Ironically, the only way to create peace was through an act of violence.

The second approach requires a deeper understanding of shalom. Simply translated, the Hebrew word shalom means peace. But the deeper meaning of shalom is harmony and balance. Shalom is not when two parties sit next to each other without hurting one another. True shalom is when different parties, perhaps even contradictory parties, are able to interconnect, harmonize, and unite in a way that transcends the sum of their parts.[15]

This is the spiritual concept of Tiferes, harmony of opposites. Tiferes is linked to the word pe'er, which means beauty; both words share the same shoresh (root). What exactly makes something beautiful? When you watch the sun set along the beach, the sight is undeniably beautiful. What, though, makes this scene so beautiful? Is it the sun, the water, the different colors, the reflection of the sun on the water? In truth, there is no one thing that makes something beautiful. True beauty is the result of many contrasting pieces melting together into a harmonious oneness; it is from this synthesis that beauty emanates. Beauty results when different colors, shapes, ideas, and sounds melt into a single connected body, forming an indescribable transcendent fusion.[16] Fascinatingly, this is why a doctor is called a rofeh, a word comprised of the same letters as the words pe'er and tiferes. A doctor's job is to balance all the different forces of the body, to create homeostasis and inner harmony.


True Emes


This same concept applies to the principle of emes (truth). The uneducated mind thinks of the truth as a single, factual statement. But the truth is actually the balance and harmony of opposite, seemingly contradictory ideas. This is the basis behind the principles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, two contradictory ideas that are resolved by a third concept. For example, if I were to tell you that the library is closed on Wednesday, and then I told you that the library is open on Wednesday, you would be confused. But the emes - the balanced and holistic truth - is that the library is open in the morning on Wednesday and closed in the afternoon. This is one of the thirteen middos (tools) that we use to darshin the Torah: Shnei Kasuvim hamachachishim zeh es zeh ad sheyavo ha'kasuv ha'shlishi v’yachria beineihem- when two pesukim contradict each other, the third pasuk comes to clarify this contradiction.

A corruption of the truth is taking an isolated idea, which is part of the truth, and seeing it alone as the whole truth, rather than placing it within the larger context of the higher truth. The whole truth is when all the pieces of truth and melt into a single, holistic picture. The higher truth is the wholeness and oneness of all the pieces of truth coming together. This is why the Gemara[17] refers to the Torah as truth (emes). The Torah is a reflection of the holistic, full truth of reality.[18]


True Shalom


This is the meaning of shalom. Shalom is not a lack of conflict. It's when conflicting ideas and pieces exist in harmony. Not only do they no longer contradict each other, but they actually complement and bring out each other's greatness. This is why the word shaleim means completion: harmony and shalom is when the disparate pieces melt into a single whole - a completed whole - greater than the sum of its parts. This is why we strive for shalom bayis in marriage. We don't only strive for a peaceful house - lacking conflict and arguments. We strive for a relationship of oneness and true harmony between husband and wife, where the two partners create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.[19] 

This is exactly what Pinchas achieved; he created a state of harmony within Klal Yisrael. Before Pinchas acted, there was absolute chaos and dysfunction; Klal Yisrael was enmired in sin, and Zimri was leading them towards greater and greater levels of chaos and dysfunction. Pinchas not only reinstated equilibrium, resetting the balance, but created a stronger, deeper state of connection and oneness, both amongst the members of Klal Yisrael, and between Klal Yisrael and Hashem. His actions shook Klal Yisrael to their core and reminded them of who they were and what they stood for. He was the true embodiment of shalom. The bris shalom was a perfect description of what Pinchas had achieved.


A Need for Birchas Shalom


There is one last element that requires elucidation. The birchas shalom was not only a reward, but a prerequisite for the birchas kehunah. There is a profound psychological principle: we are affected by our actions, no matter our intentions. In other words, regardless of our intentions, whether lishmah (for the right purposes) or not, an evil act will have internal, psychological, existential repercussions. When Pinchas killed Zimri, he became a killer, irrespective of whether his actions were appropriate. In order to prevent this condition of “being a killer” take hold of him, Hashem granted him a bracha of shalom, countering the violence that would have become a part of Pinchas' very being.[20] 

Additionally, Pinchas required this bracha in order to become a kohen and perform the avodah in the Mishkan. A kohen who kills someone is prohibited from performing the avodah. Hashem gave Pinchas the very means through which he could receive the birchas kehunah. Pinchas needed the bracha of shalom to ensure that he would remain pure and deeply connected to shalom- despite his violent act of zealotry.[21]


Pinchas: Zealot and Kohen


This is the incredible, multi-layered story of Pinchas. He was a zealot, a leader, and an enforcer of truth. He stood up for the truth, even when no one stood with him, even when his reputation - and very life - was on the line. He embodied the mission and purpose of a kohen, connecting Klal Yisrael back to Hashem, receiving his birchas kehunah as a result. His birchas shalom reflects the spiritual shalom and harmony that he created amongst Klal Yisrael, as well as the internal shalom Pinchas required after performing such a brutal, albeit necessary, act of zealotry. May we be inspired to always strive for the higher truth, to stand up for what we know is right, and to consistently create both external and internal shalom.


[1] Bamidbar 25:7-8.

[2] See Kli Yakar- Bamidbar 25:11.

[3] Rashi- Devarim 25:11.

[4] Bamidbar. 25:11.

[5] Bereishis, chapter 34.

[6] Bereishis 34:30, 49:5-7.

[7] A full discussion and analysis of the concept of rodef is beyond the scope of this article.

[8] Sanhedrin 82a.

[9] Bamidbar 25:11.

[10] For more on the unique role of the kohen (and Kohen Gadol), see article on Parshas Emor.

[11] See article on Sefiras Ha’Omer, section: “Forty-Nine Days of Bilding.” See also article on Parshas Emor, Section- "Kohanim: Creating This Connection".

[12] Tiferes Yisrael- Chapters 1-2, 25.

[13] This is also why it occurred through shemen (oil), the same shoresh (root) as shemonah, the number eight.

[14] For more on the unique role and purpose of the Beis Ha’Mikdash, see article on Parshas Tzav.

[15] For more on this concept, see article on Parshas Vayechi, section: “The Highest Order.”

[16] For more on the spiritual concept of beauty, see article on Parshas Mikeitz.

[17] Brachos 5b.

[18] The midrash says, "Istakel b'Oraisah u'barah almah," Hashem peered into the Torah and used it to create the world (Bereishis Rabbah 1:1).  The Torah is the oneness from which the world of multiplicity stems from. To re-attain the oneness of truth, one must reconnect the fragmented, multiplicity of truth in this world, sourcing it back to its higher root of oneness. For more on the relationship between oneness and twoness, see article on Parshas Balak. This is the deeper explanation of eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim- that Jewish law accepts multiple opinions as being true. Each individual opinion makes up part of the larger, holistic truth. (See Eiruvin 13b, Ritva- Eiruvin 13b, Michtav Mei’Eliyahu- Chelek 2- pg 245, Pri Tzaddik- Ma’amar Kedushas Shabbos- Ma’amir 7, Sanhedrin 34a.)

[19] See article on Creation Mysteries: When Contradiction Creates Clarity, section: “Adam and Chava: Creating Oneness.”

[20] See Ha’amek Davar-Parshas Pinchas.

[21] We find this same idea expressed regarding Dovid Ha'melech: The pesukim in Divrei Hayamim explain that Dovid was unable build the Beis Ha'Mikdash because he was a warrior with blood on his hands. The Beis Hamikdash was a place of shalom, connection, and oneness between Hashem and Klal Ysirael. It's where Hashem connects to this world. Such a place could not be built by the hands of blood and war, even if those wars were milchamos mitzvah (spiritual wars) that were completely justified. This is because people are inherently affected by the things they do. Murder affects a person, regardless of its permissibility.


This idea applies equally in the positive sense as well. The Rambam, Chinuch, and Ramchal all discuss how positive actions affect your internal state, irrespective of your outer intentions. If you do something good, even if you didn't have the right intentions, that good act will reverberate within you, have a positive impact on your internal world, and ultimately create lasting change. True, the ideal may be to first change your inner world, your perceptions, and your beliefs, and only then externalize those internal changes outwards. However, sometimes internal change is too difficult, and we must begin with outer action, in the hopes that internal change soon follows. This is the principle behind the term: "fake it till you make it". Externalize and act like the person you wish to become, because if you do, one day you will actually become that person.


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