“‘Pinchas–What’s in a Name?”

Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Pinchas, we learn that G-d praises Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, for ending the public act of harlotry of Zimri and Cozbi by spearing them both to death. For turning G-d’s anger away from the Children of Israel, the Al-mighty richly rewards Pinchas with covenants of peace and eternal priesthood to him and his descendants.

The story of Pinchas and his reward, however, is only a very small portion of this week’s parasha, consisting of only ten verses out of a total of 159 verses.

Aside from the narrative concerning Pinchas, many other important themes are found in this week’s parasha: war is declared against the Midianites; a second census of the people of Israel takes place, as well as a census of the Levites; the laws of women’s inheritance are learned from the episode concerning the daughters of Zelaphchad; Joshua is appointed as the successor of Moses; and finally, there is a lengthy description of the public daily and festival sacrifices. And yet, the name of the parasha is simply “Pinchas,” a name that hardly subsumes the broad contents of the parasha. In general, throughout the Torah, the name of a parasha often reflects many, if not most, of the themes found in that particular parasha.

The issue of the appropriateness of the parasha’s name is raised in the Gutnick edition of the Chumash, which cites the views of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994), recorded in Likutei Sichos, vol. 2, pp 342-344, based on the Rebbe’s Shabbat lecture on parashat Pinchas in 5749/1989.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that our sages strongly identify Pinchas with Elijah the Prophet (“Pinchas zeh Eliyahu”–Pinchas is Elijah!). In fact the Zohar (the basic work of Jewish mysticism, attributed to the 2nd century sage, R. Simon bar Yochai and his disciples), 214a/219a, maintains that the soul of Elijah the Prophet, the prophet who is expected to announce the arrival of the Messiah, transmigrated into the soul of Pinchas.* Consequently, it is not surprising that both Pinchas and Elijah the prophet share many common traits and characteristics.

Elijah was well known as a zealous prophet, who, in his efforts to transform the people into a source of great spiritual satisfaction for the Al-mighty, expressed his righteous indignation and executed passionate vengeance upon the worshipers of the Ba’al in his days. So it was that Elijah’s soul enabled Pinchas to transform the Jewish people of his time, from a state of spiritual deprivation and the worship of Ba’al P’or, to save them from the plague and transform the people into a nation that eventually provided great satisfaction for the Divine.

It is the transformation of the Jewish people from a spiritually deprived nation into a virtuous people that, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, serves as the unifying theme of our parasha. Thus, says the Rebbe, the census too, which is recorded in parashat Pinchas, was an expression of G-d’s affection for the Jewish people and of Divine satisfaction.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes in Numbers 1:1 that the Al-mighty counts the people of Israel all the time, because of His love for the people. Similarly, the permanent inheritance of the land of Israel that was achieved through a Divinely inspired lottery, as well as the public daily and festival offerings also reflect Divine satisfaction, since they are associated with joyfulness and celebration.

The three additional themes, not mentioned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, that are found in the parasha also meld well with the overall theme of Pinchas. Declaring war against the Midianites is an extension of Pinchas’ zealotry. A census is taken of the Levites, who were the only tribe to stand up for G-d when the people sinned with the Golden Calf. Appointing Joshua as a successor of Moses designates the leader who did battle with G-d and Israel’s mortal enemy, Amalek. Thus, we see that the two major themes of Pinchas’ life, zealotry and success in transforming the behavior of those who are resistant to achieve spiritual Divine satisfaction and virtuousness, are well represented by the name of the parasha, “Pinchas.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe argues convincingly in support of the name “Pinchas” as an appropriate and all-inclusive name by stating:

Practically speaking, Pinchas has set an example for all of us, showing how to bring about this transformation. Mainly, that whenever it is possible to further the moral or spiritual standing of others, one should not stand back and ponder, “Surely, there are greater people than myself for this task!” Rather, like Pinchas, one must rise to the moment, without hesitation.

And just as G-d granted Pinchas the soul of Eliyahu [Elijah] to carry out his mission, likewise, G-d will infuse every one of us with the necessary spirit to transform our current exile to a state of redemption. It is our job, however, to galvanize that spirit into action.

The Rebbe further notes that it is no coincidence that parashat Pinchas is almost always read at the outset of the “Three Weeks,” which begin the mourning period for the destruction of the Temple, ending with the fast of Tishah Ba’Av. Reading parashat Pinchas during this bleak three-week period empowers the Jewish people to, as Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204) states at the end of the Laws of Fast Days (5:18), transform these sad days into “days of feasting and rejoicing” with the true and complete redemption.

May this year mark the heralding of the greatly longed-for era of transformation and ultimate redemption.

*According to the Kabbalists, even though Pinchas preceded Elijah chronologically, Elijah’s soul was created first and implanted in the body of Pinchas.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, July 19, 2011, 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.