Throughout the Torah, there are many heroes with awe-inspiring ascension to greatness. When we think of Moshe Rabbeinu, we picture a burning bush, a confrontation with Pharaoh, and a splitting sea. When we think of Avraham, we imagine a man thrown into the flames, undergoing bris milah at the ripe old age of 100, and the willingness sacrifice his son on the altar. However, when we think of Pinchas, what do we see? The image is unclear, mixed with conflicting emotions, begging for clarity and explanation. Let us start from the very beginning of this week’s parshah, Parshas Pinchas, which follows immediately after the events of last week’s parshah, Balak.
After Bilaam’s attempt to curse the Jewish People failed, he tried to sway their loyalty through the enticement of harlots. Some of the Jewish people not only began violating the sin of adultery, but began violating the sin of idolatry, as well. This leads up the closing scene of last week’s parshah, for which this week’s parshah is named. Pinchas, upon seeing Zimri’s public act of brazenness with Kozbi (the Midyanite woman), grabs a spear and pierces them both.
This shocking sequence of events sets off an uproar. The Jewish people are astounded at what Pinchas did and degrade him viciously for it. They point out that Pinchas was the grandson of Aharon HaKohen, who facilitated the creation of the Eigel HaZahav – the Golden Calf, the centerpiece of the worst sin in Jewish history. He was also a descendent of Yisro, a man who used to be a priest of idolatry. They used this lineage as a basis to challenge Pinchas’ intentions, claiming an undercurrent of hypocrisy to his rebuke. How, they asked, could a person of such descent punish a nasi of B’nei Yisrael so harshly? What right did he have?
However, Hashem quickly justified Pinchas’ act, in fact 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, a status he was lacking before this point. Although Pinchas was descended from Aharon HaKohen, he was born before Hashem conferred the k’hunah status 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 already 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 meaning of these two brachos, and why did Pinchas deserve them specifically in response to his actions with Kozbi and Zimri? And, perhaps more basically, why was Pinchas’ act of murder even considered heroic? Let us try to explain the deep principles behind this episode.
The first gift awarded to Pinchas was the bris k’hunah, an opportunity to join the rest of his family in performing the avodah in the Mishkan. Why was this a fitting gift?
One could simply suggest that this was a generous reward that Hashem decided to bestow upon him. 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 spiritually 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. When the kohanim bring korbanos, they serve to connect the physical and spiritual, the Jewish People to their Source.
There is another layer to this, as well. As the Maharal explains, seven is the number of the natural, and therefore, 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 done 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, and also why it came through shemen (oil), the same shoresh as sh’monah, eight. It is therefore no surprise that the g’matria – the numerical value – of “kohen” is 75, the number exactly in between 70 and 80. The kohen’s role is to connect the higher and lower, the physical and spiritual, the infinite and finite. This is done 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 was able to both prevent further sin and to be m’chaper (atone) for their past sins – putting an end to the plague (the mageifah). This is the exact job 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. By killing Zimri, Pinchas pacified Hashem’s anger and brought shalom – peace – between Hashem and B’nei Yisrael. Hashem had brought a plague and was going to kill many more Jews had Pinchas not intervened. 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 understanding and translation 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 two different parties, perhaps even contradictory parties, are able to interconnect, harmonize, and create something beyond the sum of their two parts.
This is the meaning of shalom. Shalom is not a lack of conflict. It’s when conflicting ideas and parts exist in harmony. Not only do they no longer contradict each other, but they actually complement and bring out each other’s greatness. They join into something greater than two separate pieces. This is why the word shaleim means completion: Harmony and shalom is when all 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 they create a whole that is greater than the sum of the two parts.
This is exactly what Pinchas did: He created a state of harmony within klal Yisrael. Beforehand, there was absolute chaos and dysfunction. Klal Yisrael was enmired in sin, and Zimri was leading this movement towards greater and greater levels of chaos and dysfunction. Pinchas didn’t only recreate equilibrium, resetting the balance. He created a stronger and deeper state of connection and oneness amongst klal Yisrael themselves and between klal Yisrael and Hashem. His actions shook B’nei Yisrael to their core, and reminded them 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 layer 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 regarding the nature of physical action: We are affected by our actions, no matter our intentions. In other words, regardless of our intentions, whether li’shmah (for the right purposes) or not, an evil act will have internal, psychological, and existential repercussions. When Pinchas killed Zimri, he became a murderer, irrespective of whether or not his actions were appropriate. In order to prevent this status of murderer from taking hold of him, Hashem gave 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 murders someone is prohibited from doing the avodah – so Hashem was actually giving Pinchas the very means through which he would be able to receive the birkas k’hunah. Pinchas needed the brachah of shalom to ensure that he would remain pure and full of shalom – despite his violent act of zealotry.
This idea applies equally in the positive sense, as well. The Rambam, the 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.
This is the incredible and yet mysterious story of Pinchas: a zealot, a leader, an enforcer of truth. He stood up for the truth, even when no one stood with him, even when his entire reputation 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 genuine spiritual shalom that he created amongst klal Yisrael, as well as the internal shalom that Pinchas requires 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.