Friday, July 06, 2007

The Covenant Of Peace (Pinchas 5767)

At the end of last week’s Parashah, Pinchas killed a Jewish man (Zimri) and a Midianite woman (Kozbi) for indulging in an illicit relationship:

Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen, saw (them) and he arose from within the community. He took a spear in his hand. He came after the Jewish man to the tent, and he impaled the two of them - the Jewish man and the woman through her genitals, and the plague stopped from upon the Children of Yisrael. (BeMidbar 25:7-8)

Our Parashah begins with God’s surprising blessing to Pinchas:

And God spoke to Moshe saying. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Kohen turned back My anger from upon the Children of Yisrael, when he was zealous on My behalf amidst them, so I did not destroy the Children of Yisrael in My zealotry. Therefore say - behold, I give to him My covenant, peace. Therefore say - behold, I give to him My covenant, peace - because he was zealous for his God and he atoned for the Children of Yisrael. (ibid. 10-13)

The actual blessing of Pinchas was that he became a Kohen:

Even though the priesthood had already been given to the descendants of Aharon, it was given only to Aharon and his sons who were anointed with him, and to their descendants who were born after their anointing. But Pinchas, who was born before this and was not anointed, did not enter into the priesthood until now.... (Rashi ad loc.)

The priesthood was granted to Aharon and his sons and to any male descendants born afterwards. As Pinchas was already born at this point, he was not automatically a Kohen. There is a wealth of literature on this point, some simple, some fascinating and highly esoteric.

The blessing of priesthood in response to violence is especially paradoxical. The Kohen is supposed to be a man of peace:

Be one of the students of Aharon the Kohen: loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near to Torah. (Avot 1:12)

Further, a Kohen who kills, while not losing his priesthood, becomes ineligible to function in his priestly role. This problem is noted by the Zohar, which also offers an answer:

What does the verse mean, ‘because he was zealous for his God,’ which implies that because of this act he gained the priesthood, but not before this. Come and see - any Kohen who kills is forever disqualified from the priesthood. For by so doing, he certainly invalidates his level. Strictly speaking, Pinchas was disqualified from the priesthood. Because of this, God needed to give him a new, permanent priesthood for him and his descendants for all generations. (Zohar HaKadosh 3:124a)

It is not entirely clear what this means. The Kohen embodies connection between this world and the next – his role is to connect man and God. This can be seen in the priestly blessings, and most potently, in the priestly role in the Temple, the place where Man and God meet. This helps us to understand why, under normal circumstances, a Kohen may not come in contact with the dead: the separation between physical and spiritual that occurs when a person dies is the antithesis of the job of the Kohen. A Kohen who kills has fundamentally undermined his role and is thus disqualified.

Sometimes, however, the momentary act of violence is essential to preserve and maintain life. It is a sad reality that in some circumstances a violent action will prevent a great deal more violence. It is obvious that extreme caution must be exercised in this regard, yet the reality is irrefutable. At various times in history, there are those who denied this and insisted that violence is never the answer to a problem, no matter the consequences. Sometimes, being merciful to the evil will result in evil to the merciful.

In this case, Pinchas was prepared to act against the perpetrators to stay the plague and restore the Jewish people’s relationship with God, while others stood about, unable to act. This made him subject to extreme criticism and even attack from his peers. Yet God indicated that Pinchas had acted justly by rewarding him with the most counter-intuitive form of blessing - an all-new form of priesthood. This was a unique priesthood, one granted by bringing peace the hard way.

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