“The Colorful Biography of Pinchas”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the end of last week’s parasha, we learned that a prominent couple performed a lewd act in public in order to directly challenge Moses’ authority. Pinchas, the son of Elazar, arose suddenly from among the congregation and, in his zealotry, plunged his spear through the couple, stopping the plague that had struck the people of Israel.

As this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, opens, G-d praises Pinchas for turning back His wrath from upon the children of Israel by zealously avenging G-d, so that He did not consume the children of Israel in His vengeance.

The parasha now reveals the names of the wanton couple. Zimri, the son of Salu, was a leader of the house of the tribe of Simeon, and the slain Midianite woman was Cozbi, whose father Zur was one of the leaders of Midian. In Numbers 25:12, G-d declares: “La’chayn eh’mor, hin’neh’nee no’tayn lo et b’ree’tee shalom,” Therefore, says G-d to Moses, let it be said that I give Pinchas My covenant of peace, and that he and his offspring after him will be part of the eternal covenant of priesthood, because he exacted vengeance for his G-d and atoned for the children of Israel.

Pinchas, a descendent of one of the most prominent families in Israel, was the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron, the High Priest. His grandmother was one of the daughters of Putiel (Exodus 6:25), a descendent of Jethro who had married into the family of Joseph. Apparently, Pinchas was an only child, and father of a son named Avishua (Chronicles 1, 6:35).

Although Pinchas is widely known for his zealous action, during his lifetime he amassed an impressive record of achievement. Psalm 136:30 sings the praises of Pinchas for standing up and “praying” to stop the plague that had struck Israel. When Israel was instructed to avenge the Midianites for their treachery (Numbers 31:6), Moses chose Pinchas to head the forces that defeated the Midianites. In Joshua 22, we are told that Pinchas was sent, along with 10 tribal leaders, to reason with the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Menashe, after these tribes built a large altar for themselves on the east side of the Jordan. Through his diplomatic negotiations with the prodigal tribes, Pinchas elicited an apology from them, acknowledging that they had no intention of offering sacrifices on the illegal altar, but rather hoped that the altar would serve as an affirmation of their commitment to the tribes of Israel and the unity of the nation. The book of Judges (20:28) also records that it was Pinchas who, in his function as priest, consulted with the Urim and Tumim in the treacherous incident of the concubine of Gibeah.

The Midrash and the Talmud tell us that Pinchas was subject to great ridicule throughout much of his life due to his mother’s foreign origins. The Talmud, in Sotah 43a, suggests that the reason that Pinchas led the battle against the Midianites was in order to avenge the sale to Egypt of his great-grandfather, Joseph, by the Midianites.

Despite the fact that Pinchas killed the defiant couple without authority, he is nevertheless regarded as a national hero. Jewish tradition considers his act honorable because it stopped the Jewish men from engaging in wholesale lewdness. The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82a, graphically describes the dramatic confrontation with Moses: Zimri grabbed Cozbi by her hair, stood her in front of Moses and began to scream: “Son of Amram! Is this woman forbidden to me or permitted? If you say she is forbidden, who gave you the permission to marry the daughter of Jethro?”

When Moses did not answer, all the people began to cry. At that moment, Pinchas remembered the law that it is permissible to take the life of someone who performs such a lewd act and acted accordingly.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 82b, states that six miracles occurred for Pinchas, enabling him to punish the two sinners. Pinchas then argued with the Al-mighty regarding the justice of punishing so many: “Shall 24,000 [People of Israel] perish because of these [Zimri and Cozbi]?” he cried out. The ministering angels sought to repulse him. G-d, however, insisted that they let him be, referring to Pinchas as “a zealot, a descendant of a zealot, a turner-away of wrath, and the son of a turner-away of wrath.” This, apparently, was an illusion to Levi, the first ancestor of his tribe who was zealous for his sister Dina’s honor, and to Aaron, Pinchas’ grandfather, who turned away G-d’s wrath on the occasion of Korach’s revolt.

The Talmud, in Sotah 22b, tells us that Pinchas’ act eventually became a byword among the people of Israel, especially for the hypocrites who “perform deeds like Zimri, and seek a reward like Pinchas!”

According to Maimonides’ (Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) introduction to his Mishnah Torah, it was Pinchas who received the oral tradition from Moses and transmitted it to Eli, the High Priest. The Midrash Rabbah, Numbers 16a, identifies the two spies who were sent to Jericho as Caleb and Pinchas. The fact that Scripture in Joshua 2:4 states, “and she [Rahab] hid him” (singular) was because Pinchas was transformed into an angel who was not seen, and there was no need to hide him.

Furthermore, there are even those who suggest that after his death, Pinchas eventually returned to the world of the living in the form of Elijah the Prophet. Others explain that because Elijah was a disciple of Pinchas in zealotry, he is therefore considered like him.

A further parallel between Pinchas and Elijah is that they both defended G-d’s dignity. Pinchas did so when confronting the lewd offenders. Elijah did so when confronting the evil king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, who forbade the circumcision of Jewish children.

The Midrash Bereishith Rabbah 60:3 states that Pinchas lost his power of prophecy, because he failed to release Jephtah from his vow. Both Jephtah and Pinchas felt that it was beneath their dignity to be the first to approach the other to resolve the issue. As a result of their hubris, an innocent woman [Jephtah’s daughter] was to suffer unnecessarily.

The Arizal (Isaac Luria,1534-1572, considered the father of contemporary Kabbalah) taught that Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who died for bringing an improper fire, had entered the body of Pinchas when he killed Zimri, the parallel being that all three acted without conferring with their elders. However, in contrast to the two sons of Aaron, Pinchas was not punished because he did the correct thing.

Obviously, we see that Pinchas was much more than simply a “zealot.” He was a formidable leader of Israel who left a most impressive legacy of service to his people, who continue to benefit from his bold actions to this very day.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, June 29, 2010, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av. Have a meaningful fast. Click here for more information.