Parshat Pinchas: Righteous Reward

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text Bamidbar Cover

Context
As Parshat Pinchas opens, God details the divine reward to be bestowed upon Pinchas for his courageous defense of God’s honor during the episode of Ba’al Pe’or: “Therefore, proclaim: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood, because he took vengeance for his God and he atoned for the children of Israel.”

Questions
The reward granted by God to Pinchas seems to be completely coun-terintuitive. During the episode of Ba’al Pe’or, Pinchas defended God’s honor by summarily executing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were engaged in an act of public desecration. Pinchas’ violent act of zealotry, while apparently warranted, could hardly be construed as a “peaceful” act. Why then does God go out of His way to specifically reward Pinchas with a divine “covenant of peace”?

In the same vein, why is ascension to the priesthood an appropriate practical reward for Pinchas? The paradigm of the priesthood is, after all, Pinchas’ grandfather Aharon, famously identified as a “lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.” Pinchas’ violent actions seem to be strange qualifications for his grandfather’s priestly mantle.

Are the “covenant of peace” and the “covenant of eternal priesthood” mentioned in the text synonymous, or does God grant this hero multiple rewards? If these rewards are separate, what is the exact nature of the “covenant of peace”?

Finally, the concrete implications of Pinchas’ priestly reward are equally unclear. Why must God bestow upon Pinchas a “covenant of eternal priesthood”? Isn’t Pinchas already a Kohen simply by dint of the fact that he is Aharon’s grandson?

Approaches

-A-
While some scholars, notably Rashi, perceive only one reward accruing to Pinchas, other authorities view the two covenants as separate pledges.

One group of commentaries, for example, including the Abravanel, interprets the divinely ordained “covenant of peace” as a concrete commitment on God’s part to ensure Pinchas’ personal safety. In the aftermath of the violent events at Ba’al Pe’or, God pledges to protect Pinchas from any retribution that might be taken against him by the powerful family and friends of his victim, Zimri.

The Sforno agrees that the “covenant of peace” granted by God to Pinchas is fundamentally a pledge of divine protection. The protection God pledges, however, is not protection from Zimri’s supporters but from death itself. Citing a series of textual and Midrashic sources indicating that Pinchas far outlives his contemporaries, the Sforno maintains that with this first covenant, God promises Pinchas the gift of personal longevity.

Moving in a completely different direction, the Netziv, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin, offers a powerfully stirring interpretation of the “covenant of peace.” This blessing, the Netziv maintains, is designed to counteract the destructive internal tendencies that Pinchas’ violent deed might have aroused:

He [God] blessed him [Pinchas] with the attribute of peace, that he should be neither quick-tempered nor easily angered. For it is only natural that the act performed by Pinchas, the slaying of a soul by his hand, would leave in his heart a powerful unrest….

Therefore, divine blessing is bestowed upon him, that he should continually experience tranquility and the attribute of peace, and that his own actions should not haunt him.

Through a divine “covenant of peace,” the Netziv claims, God ensures that Pinchas’ personal encounter with violence will not leave him permanently scarred.

Equally beautiful is the approach of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who suggests that the definition of “peace” is very much in the eye of the beholder. From a Torah perspective, however, the definition is clear:

True peace of men rests on the peace of all of them with God [my italics]. He who dares to wage war with people who are against divine Goodness and Truth is…fighting for the “covenant of peace” on earth. He who, for the sake of so-called peace, quietly leaves the field to people who are really at variance with God, his love of peace is at one with the enemies of the “covenant of peace” on earth.”

Pinchas’ violent actions in defense of God’s name, Hirsch argues, are actually “peaceful acts.” As he fights to preserve God’s will, Pinchas brings the world one step closer to the “covenant of peace,” to the true state of tranquility resulting from the attainment of harmony between God and man.

-B-
Turning to the second of the two covenants mentioned in the text, the “covenant of eternal priesthood,” we are immediately confronted with the technical questions surrounding Pinchas’ status as a priest before and after the fateful events of Ba’al Pe’or.

If Pinchas is already a Kohen by dint of his identity as Aharon’s grandson, why must he now be blessed with “a covenant of eternal priesthood”?

Two basic approaches are suggested by the commentaries, both based on the early Midrashic dictum “Pinchas was not appointed as Kohen until he killed Zimri….”

Rashi maintains that Pinchas, although a descendent of Aharon, is not a Kohen at all until these events unfold. The kehuna, this scholar explains, is granted to those descendents of Aharon who are born after Aharon and his sons are themselves inaugurated into the priesthood. Because Pinchas was born before the moment of Aharon’s ascension, he can only enter the priesthood in an exceptional fashion, as a result of God’s blessing in the wake of his heroic act. A slight alternative to this approach is suggested by a group of scholars who maintain that while Aharon and his sons were originally inaugurated into the kehuna, his grandsons were not. Pinchas is, therefore, not a Kohen until God confers such status upon him following the events at Ba’al Pe’or.

Both the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, on the other hand, interpret the “covenant of priesthood” as referring specifically to the High Priesthood. Although Pinchas is a Kohen from the outset, his heroism catapults him to a new, higher status. God now commands Moshe to publicly proclaim that the chain of High Priesthood will, in the future, emerge directly from Pinchas.

-C-
Whichever approach we accept, however, the question remains: In what way is the granting of priesthood, in any form, an appropriate reward for Pinchas’ violent actions?

A number of commentaries, including the Abravanel, answer this by suggesting that the “covenant of priesthood” is a confirmation, rather than a conferral, of Pinchas’ kehuna. Through this covenant, God allays the zealot’s fears concerning his own current status. In the aftermath of the events at Ba’al Pe’or, Pinchas is concerned that he will lose his status as a Kohen because of the law invalidating any individual guilty of murder or manslaughter from the priesthood. God, therefore, grants Pinchas the “covenant of priesthood,” reassuring him that, because his courageous actions served the greater good, his current status as a priest remains intact.

-D-
The Ktav Sofer, however, chooses an interpretive path that skillfully weaves the two covenants bestowed upon Pinchas into one cohesive whole.

God, this scholar maintains, confers priesthood upon Pinchas after the events at Ba’al Pe’or specifically because the character exhibited by Pinchas during those events recommends him to the priesthood.

As teachers of the nation, the Kohanim are required to instruct the people with unbending strength and unyielding commitment. There is to be no compromise when it comes to matters of the law and ritual. The zeal demonstrated by Pinchas in his defense of God’s name, therefore, will serve him well in his priestly role.

At the same time, however, the passion for God’s law, meant to be part of every Kohen’s psyche, must be balanced by a warmth that discourages strife and brings others close. This is the warmth of Aharon, “the lover of peace and the pursuer of peace.” God, therefore, blesses Pinchas with both a “covenant of peace” and a “covenant of eternal priesthood.”

There will be times when, as a priest, Pinchas will have to be an Aharon, and times when he will have to be a zealot. Together, the two covenants will provide Pinchas with the balance essential to his success.