Pinchas: To Own and To Have

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16 Jul 2008

I refuse to tell the whole joke.

But somehow that super clichéd line about my father’s a kohein and my grandfather’s a kohein (so I wanted to be a kohein too) never fails to deliver concomitant grins – and groans (usually from the same people). Our parsha marks the first appearance of a man, whose father was a kohein, whose grandfather was a kohein and yet he himself was not a kohein. Pinchas, we know, did not commence his status with the original group of kohanim; he receives the gift of kehuna (not the big one, but the priesthood) after his act of kanaus (zealotry) wherein he disposed of Kazbi and Zimri (cf. end of last week’s Parsha for the details)

In truth our basic “knowledge” is not that simple. Three opinions emerge from the gemara (1):

  1. Pinchas was a kohein from the very beginning with Aharon and his children (2).
  2. Pinchas did not become a kohein until Bnei Yisrael entered the land of Israel (3)
  3. Pinchas was not a kohein until his act of zealotry brought him the new mantle of kehuna

According to the latter 2 opinions, God only consecrated Aharon, his children and future descendants as kohanim. By accident of birth, Pinchas was technically excluded from the original commandment, as he was neither a son, nor a future descendant. There are no Divine accidents. We may venture to probe the Divine mind and ask why did Hashem create the technicality in the first place, knowing that Pinchas would eventually acquire that which (birth)rightfully could/should have been his?

A chacham might say hi hanosenes, i.e. Hashem wanted Pinchas to earn the kehuna. Why? One might suggest two basic notions (4):

The first suggestion is simple. The Pinchas episode concludes by teaching that the priesthood is a covenant of peace. The kohein may not take his status for granted, rather he must internalize kehuna by actively seek shalom, ala the mishna in Pirkei Avos. Hevei mitalmidav shel aharon oheiv shalom v’rodeif shalom, oheiv es habrios u’mekarvan latorah

Torah Temimah suggests the latter in a rather ingenious manner. Pinchas was a controversial figure. Kanaus contrary to popular belief is certainly not encouraged (5) and may not be ideal (6), as such, it requires total purity of motive(7).

By contrast, mitzvos may come in variant shades of muddled intentions as long as the ultimate goal of sincerity (mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma) reigns supreme. Remarkably, even after the plague had stopped, the Jerusalem Talmud relates that Pinchas was to be excommunicated by the people until God vouched that he was kinei l’elokav – i.e. his heart was pure. In other words, Pinchas’s zealotry was under the microscope. Since kohanim have a predilection towards anger (8), Pinchas’s behavior would be ascribed to his personal character foibles rather than his noble motivations. For Pinchas to be a kanai, it would have been difficult to be a kohein.

The Amish have a year called rumspringa where the older teenagers embark upon a year of “exploration”. To be or not to be (Amish that is) is the question they ask of their teenagers. Reportedly (and impressively) about 85-90 percent of the kids return to the fold. I have no profound knowledge of this system and can’t even tell you how accurate my information is. The system’s wisdom appears manifest. Each young Amish man or woman decides whether being Amish works for him or her. If they decide it is right, they return probably stronger than ever. (Admittedly, there are enormous social pressures at work as well).

Such a notion, even as it has hit the unorthodox blogosphere will forever remain foreign to us for so many reasons. At the core, a Jew’s holiness is immanent. Seeking refuge from one’s innate, incontrovertible and undeniable sanctity is akin to Yonah trying to run away from the long arm of the divine: Simply put, it won’t fly.

However, the wisdom of being able to acquire that which one already has should not be overlooked. Pinchas reacquires his birthright of kehuna, and it is not a minimalist acquisition. All told, at least 99 High Priests emerge from his line (9). On some level, better to have loved, lost and loved again than to never have lost at all is the operating notion. One can’t really appreciate air conditioning unless you are stuck in a Bnei Brak summer day without it. More fundamentally, in the inimitable explanation of R. Hutner – sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam (seven times shall the righteous fall and then rise) is a prescription, not a description.

Cookie cutters may create wonderful shapes but often the cookie is rather blasé. To the extent that we challenge ourselves and our students/children to feel and rediscover the wonder of what we have, we will create inspired and creative Jews.

Good Shabbos to All, Asher Brander

1. Cf. Zevachim 101b

2. Cf. Shemos 29:29, and Shemos 30:3. The basic text reads that the clothing of the kohein shall be for Aharon and his children to be anointed/elevated through them. If this is the case, Hashem’s reward to Pinchas of the bris kehunas olam must then be reinterpreted. It may mean the kohanim gedolim will emerge from him or it may reassert his validity as kohein to serve in the beis hamikdash even though he killed Zimri – which according to halacha renders a kohein invalid to duchen and to serve in the Beis Hamikdash. Cf. Da’as zekeinim and Moshav Zekeinim al Hatorah

3. Zevachim, ibid. According to Rav Ashi, it happened when he was instrumental in bringing peace amongst all the tribes.

4. Cf. R. Benzion Firrer Panim Chadashos Batorah for an incredible 3rd notion that the kehuna needed to be earned by Aharon and his two children as well and it was when they stood up to the worshippers of the Golden calf. Pinchas however was too young at the time and therefore needed to earn it in some different manner.

5. Cf. Sanhedrin 82a haba limaleich ein morin lo

6. Cf. Mishna Lamelech Hilchos Rotzeiach, 1:15 for a fascinating discussion regarding this issue and a comparison to the concept of rodeif

7. Similar to the concept of aveirah lishma. Cf. Netziv on the verse v’chipeir al hanfesh, cf. Nazir 23b regarding Yael and Sisera.

8. Cf. Bava Basra Chapter 10

9. Cf. Tosafos Zevachim 101b and Tosafos 9a. as to whether 99 or over 380 high priests come from his line. Remarkably, R. Nachsoni quotes a chassidishe sefer that points out the initials of the phrase v’hayita lo u’lezaro acharav bris kehuna olam = 99!

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.