Lying for Love

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the kohen, turned back my anger from upon Bnai Yisrael by being zealous on My behalf among them.  And I did not utterly destroy Bnai Yisrael in My anger. (Sefer BeMidbar 29:11)

1.  Parshat Pinchas completes Parshat Balak

Parshat Balak ends with a description of the event of Sheetim.  Bnai Yisrael were encamped at this location.  Women from Moav came into the camp.  Midyan was also represented among these women.  The young women came with a mission.  Their goal was to corrupt the men of Bnai Yisrael.  Their strategy was to first seduce the men and then invite them to join them in idolatrous practices.

Their strategy succeeded on three levels.  First, they did achieve their goal of seducing men and involving them in their idolatrous worship.  Second, their success was met by tremendous confusion among the leadership.  The leadership was uncertain how to respond to this catastrophe.  Third, in the absence of a vigorous response, Hashem brought upon the people a terrible plague.

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, and the grandson of Aharon was not confused.  He took up his spear and drove it through two of the most prominent participants in this orgiastic episode.  His two victims were Zimri , the son of Salu.  Zimri was a prince of the shevet – the tribe – of Shimon.  The woman who liaisoned with Zimri was executed with him.  She was Kazbee, the daughter of Tzur.  Her father, Tzur, was a chieftain of Midyan.

The passages above are the opening passages of Parshat Pinchas.  They refer to this incident.  In the passages following those above, Pinchas is rewarded for his initiative.  Those passages seem to indicate that Pinchas received two rewards.  Hashem awarded him a covenant of peace.  He was also rewarded with kehunah – priesthood.

2.  Pinchas’ appointment to priesthood

The appointment of Pinchas as a kohen – a priest – requires explanation.  He was a descendant of Aharon the kohen.  Was he not a kohen prior to this incident?  Rashi explains that Pinchas was not among the original kohanim – priests.  Initially, only Aharon and his sons were anointed and appointed to the kehunah.  Once bestowed upon them, kehunah would extend to any subsequent offspring.  Pinchas was not among these sons of Aharon.  He was not anointed.  Sons born to his father Elazar after his anointment would be endowed with the status of kohen.  Pinchas was already an adult son at the time of Elazar’s appointment. Therefore, up to this point, he was not a kohen.  According to Rashi, the above passages describe Pinchas’ appointment as a kohen in response to his act of zealousness.[1]

Others differ with Rashi.  Rabbaynu Avraham Ibn Ezra maintains that Pinchas was included among those originally appointed to the kehunah.  The above passages are not awarding Pinchas kehunah.  Instead, Pinchas is assured that the role of kohen gadol – high priest – will belong to him and to his descendants.[2]  This promise was fulfilled.  Most of the kohanim who served as kohen gadol were descendants of Pinchas.[3]

In short, Pinchas was rewarded with a legacy related to the kehunah.  The exact nature of the legacy is disputed.  According to Rashi, he was appointed to the kehunah.  According to others, the position of kohen gadol was given to his descendants as a legacy.

3.  The covenant of peace

There is a debate among the commentators regarding this covenant of peace. Rashi does not understand this covenant of peace as a second separate blessing or reward.   Instead, it introduces the reward of kehunah.  It explains that the reward of kehunah is an expression of Hashem’s goodwill toward Pinchas.  As an expression of His goodwill, Hashem appointed Pinchas to the kehunah.[4]

In summary, the essential reward granted Pinchas was related to kehunah.  According to Rashi, this was the only reward.  Why was kehunah the appropriate reward for Pinchas?

Therefore, say to him: Now, I grant him My covenant of peace.  And to him and his descendants who follow him will be a covenant of eternal priesthood – because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for Bnai Yisrael.  (Sefer BeMidbar 25:12-13)

4.  Why a reward of priesthood?

The pesukim identify two factors through which Pinchas secured his reward.  First, Pinchas was zealous for Hashem.  Second, he atoned for Bnai Yisrael.  These factors provide a compelling explanation for Pinchas’ reward.  A kohen serves Hashem in the Bait HaMikdash – the Temple.  His life is dedicated to serve Hashem.  Also, a fundamental element of this service is the offering of sacrifices brought in the process of atonement.  Who could be more fit for these roles?  Pinchas demonstrated his devotion to Hashem.  He acted decisively and bravely.  He recognized that an egregious desecration of the Torah was unfolding and acted while others were paralyzed by indecision.  In taking action, he atoned for the nation’s paralysis and ended the plague.  In short, Pinchas’ behavior uniquely qualified him for the kohen’s role in the Temple service and in the process of atonement for the nation.

The midrash provides a slightly different perspective on the reward of Pinchas and its appropriateness.  The midrash focuses upon another role of the kohen.

Before considering the comments of the midrash. Let us return to an issue discussed above. As noted, the passages seem to identify two rewards granted to Pinchas – a covenant of peace and a covenant of priesthood.  Rashi demurs from this interpretation and suggests that the two references are to a single reward – priesthood.  This reward is referred to as a covenant of peace because it was an expression of Hashem’s goodwill toward Pinchas.

May Hashem bless you and guard you.  May He shine His countenance upon you and grant you grace. May He lift is countenance upon you and place upon you peace.  (Sefer BeMidbar 6:24-26)

5.  The priest as a representative of peace

The midrash agrees that the two references apply to a single reward – kehunah.  However, according to the midrash, the appointment of Pinchas to the priesthood is referred to as a covenant of peace because, peace and kehunah are synonymous.  What is the connection between kehunah and peace?

As explained above, the kohen’s role is to serve Hashem in the Bait HaMikdash and participate in the process of atonement for Bnai Yisrael. However, the kohen has another role.  He bestows a daily blessing upon the people.  This tripartite blessing is described in the above passages.  The final element is a blessing of peace.  Through his appointment to the kehunah, Pinchas secured the right to, each day, bless the nation with peace.

According to the midrash, the reason that kehunah was an appropriate reward for Pinchas is because of the kohen’s role in blessing the people with peace.[5]  This reward demonstrated that Pinchas was a person dedicated to peace and who loved Bnai Yisrael.

My covenant was with him – life and peace.  I granted these to him because of his awe and that he feared me; and that he trembled before My name.  The law of truth was in his mouth.  Falsehood was not found upon his lips.  With peace and justice he traveled before Me.  Many he redeemed from iniquity.  For the lips of the kohen guard knowledge. They shall seek Torah from his mouth, for he is an angel of Hashem of the hosts.  (Malachi 2:5-7)

6.  The priest is associated with peace and truth

As explained above, one of the qualities with which kehunah is associated is love of peace.  The above passages reference this quality but they focus upon another important characteristic of kehunah.  In these passages, the navi – the prophet – Malachi urges the people to seek the guidance or the kohanim.  The navi explains that the kohanim are not only selected to serve in the Bait HaMikdash.  They are also assigned to task of instructing the people in observance of the Torah.  These passages associate the kehunah with devotion to truth. In other words, the kohen is associated with two traits – love of peace and truthfulness.

7.  Lying for the sake of peace

The Sages make reference to the above passages from Malachi in an odd context.  They explain that Aharon exemplified the pursuit of peace.  They provide an example of Aharon’s strategies for securing peace among people.

Two friends became embroiled in a dispute.  In their anger, they became alienated from one another. Aharon would individually confront each of the disputants.  He would tell each that his former friend and current adversary was deeply pained by their conflict and grieved the loss of his dear friend’s love.  Each would be moved by Aharon’s account of the other’s grief.  They would run to each other to repair and restore the relationship disrupted by their recent dispute.  In this context, the Sages cite the words of Malachi.[6]

The reference to Malachi’s comments is difficult to understand.  It is true that Malachi notes that the kohen is devoted to peace.  However, he stresses the kohen’s commitment to uncompromised truth.  In the example provided by the Sages of Aharon’s efforts to promote peace, truth is sacrificed for the greater good of repairing a relationship between friends.  It seems that Aharon was not uncompromising in his commitment to the truth.  Peace was more important to him.

8.  Lying for the sake of truth

A more careful examination of the example of Aharon’s strategy suggests a solution to this problem.  Aharon understood that these two former friends were now adversaries because of a falsehood that each embraced about his former comrade. In response to their dispute, each had reformulated his perception of his former friend.  The former friend was demonized and transformed into an adversary bereft of any positive qualities.  The positive aspects of his former friend’s personality had been either minimized or dismissed as not genuine.  In other words, the enmity between these two former friends was founded upon a lie that each accepted regarding the other.

It is true that Aharon fabricated a tale of remorse that he communicated to each of the adversaries.  But this tale was devised to prompt each to see past the demonized image invented of his friend and see again the true person with whom he had felt bonds of fraternity.  The tale invented by Aharon was a vehicle for tearing away a veil of distortion and revealing a more fundamental truth.

9.  Peace and friendship founded upon truth

The Sages cite Malachi’s words because they reflect this lesson.  So many shattered relationships and conflicts are based upon falsehood and deception. Each party imagines himself the injured.  In his desire to give full vent to the fury of his anger, he demonizes his adversary.  It does not satisfy his needs to perceive his adversary as a good person with whom he has a dispute.  He cannot resent and detest such a person.  He vilifies his adversary in order to justify his own odious desires.

In their praise of Aharon, the Sages suggest to us a therapy for our conflicts with one another.  These conflicts may be legitimate.  However, we must resist the temptation to convert conflict into hatred through embracing a lie – the demonization of our adversary.  We must focus on the simple truth that we each have positive and negative characteristics.  Like ourselves, our adversaries are neither all good nor all bad – just complex and imperfect human beings who try to do good but sometimes fall short.  If we can remember these truths, then we can forgive our adversary’s faults and allow our disagreements to exist within a context of mutual respect and fraternity.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:13.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 25:12.

[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar. Parshat Pinchas.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:12-13.

[5] Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher, Torah Shelymah Parshat Naso, p 113.

[6] Avot D’Rav Natan 12:3.