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 Rabbeinu, we picture a burning bush, a dramatic confrontation with Pharaoh, and a spectacular splitting of the Yam Suf (Red Sea). When we consider Avraham Avinu, we imagine a man thrown into the flames, undergoing bris milah at the age of 100, 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 Parshas Pinchas, which follows immediately after the events of the previous parshah, 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 parshah, 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 (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 Eigel HaZahav (Golden Calf), 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 – D’varim 25:11). 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 k’hunah. The bris k’hunah 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 k’hunah upon Aharon and his sons, and was not included amongst those appointed. Although future offspring of Aharon and his sons inherited the k’hunah, 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 first was the bris k’hunah, 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 (priests) 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, the Jewish People to their Source.
There are many layers of expression within this idea. As we have discussed previously, the Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael – Chapters 1-2, 25) 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. 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 the physical, the infinite and the 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 sin amongst klal Yisrael, Pinchas both prevented further sin and was m’chapeir (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. K’hunah was not an arbitrary gift; it was the positive consequence of the person Pinchas chose to become – a zealot for Hashem.
In addition to the bris k’hunah, 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 brachah 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.
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.
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 Birkas Shalom
There is one last element that requires elucidation. The birkas shalom was not only a reward, but a prerequisite for the birkas k’hunah. 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 brachah of shalom, countering the violence that would have become a part of Pinchas’ very being.
Additionally, Pinchas required this brachah 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 birkas k’hunah. Pinchas needed the brachah of shalom to ensure that he would remain pure and deeply connected to shalom – despite his violent act of zealotry.
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 birkas k’hunah as a result. His birkas 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.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com