“Because he was zealous for his G-d and he atoned for Bnai Yisrael, he and his descendants after him will have a permanent covenant of priesthood.” (BeMidbar 25:13)
Parshat Balak ends with an account of Moav’s attempt to corrupt Bnai Yisrael. The nation of Moav recruits the young women of the nation. They are sent into the camp of Bnai Yisrael with orders to seduce the men. Once the seduction is accomplished, the women entice the men to participate in idolatry.
This plan almost succeeds. The young women are successful in seducing some of the men. A princess of Midyan – Kazbi, the daughter of Tzur – actually succeeds in seducing one of the leaders of the shevet of Shimon – Zimri, the son of Salu.
Pinchas, the grandson of Ahron, intervenes. He executes Zimri and Kazbi while they are in the act of fornication.
Our parasha begins with an account of the rewards received by Pinchas. Among these rewards, Hashem promises Pinchas a permanent covenant of priesthood. What is the meaning of this blessing?
Superficially, it seems that this covenant endowed Pinchas and his descendants with the priesthood. They were made Kohanim. However, Pinchas was that grandson of Ahron. The descendants of Ahron were already chosen to serve as the Kohanim! What is Hashem giving to Pinchas that he does not already possess?
In fact, it is not at all clear that Pinchas and his descendants were already appointed as Kohanim. How is this possible? The Talmud in Tractate Zevachim discusses this issue. The Talmud explains that there are two opinions regarding the identity of the original Kohanim. The opinions differ on a simple question. Who were the original Kohanim? Were the only first Kohanim the sons of Ahron? Alternatively, did this group include all of Ahron’s descendants alive at that time? What is the difference between these two possibilities? Pinchas was a grandson of Ahron. He was Ahron’s descendant. However, he was not Ahron’s son. According to the first opinion, only the sons of Ahron were the original Kohanimn. Their descendants who were born subsequently also became Kohanim. However, descendants already born were not included in the Kehunah – the Priesthood. This means that Pinchas was not one of the original Kohanim. Neither could his descendants serve as Kohanim. He was not a son of Ahron. His descendants could not claim descent from a Kohen.
According to the second opinion, all the descendants of Ahron were included in the original group of Kohanim. Pinchas was a grandson of Ahron. He was a descendant. Therefore, he and his children were already included in the Kehunah.
Rashi adopts the first opinion. He indicates that Pinchas was not one of the original Kohanim. Maimonides sides with the second opinion. He maintains that Pinchas was included among the original Kohanim.
Our pasuk must be interpreted according to each of these opinions. According to the first opinion, our passage is easily understood. Pinchas and his children were not originally included in the Kehunah. At this point, he and his descendants are granted Kehunah. This was part of his reward for acting zealously on behalf of Hashem. In our pasuk, the Almighty creates a permanent change in the status of Pinchas and his descendants. They will now be Kohanim and have the same status as Ahron’s sons and their progeny.
However, according to the second opinion, our pasuk is not as easily understood. According to this opinion, Pinchas and his descendants already possessed the status of Kehunah. What new office is given to Pinchas in our passage?
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra proposes an answer to this question. He explains that the passage does not represent a promise of Kehunah. Pinchas and his descendants already had this status. Instead, in our pasuk, Hashem awards Pinchas the office Kohen Gadol. Pinchas and his descendants will hold this office.
Gershonides observes that most of those who held the office of Kohen Gadol were descendants of Pinchas. However, there were exceptions. Some of those who served as Kohen Gadol were descendants of Itamar. How can these exceptions be reconciled with Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the pasuk?
Gershonides responds that Hashem did not tell Pinchas that every Kohen Gadol would be one of his descendants. Instead, Hashem promised that this office would always be associated with the descendants of Pinchas. The office would never be transferred to a different family. At times, there would not be a fitting descendant of Pinchas to hold the office. Under such circumstances, the Kohen Gadol would come from the family of Itamar. Nonetheless, this interruption will only be temporary. The office will always return to the descendants of Pinchas.
Geshonides maintains that this is an example of a general principle. Hashem’s blessings often involve some element of permanency. For example, kingship is awarded to the shevet of Yehudah. This does not mean that there will never be a king who is not from the shevet of Yehudah. Geshonides points out that such an interpretation is untenable. At times, there may not be an appropriate candidate for kingship from the shevet. Alternatively, sometimes the shevet will deserve to be punished. Under these circumstances, the kingship must temporarily be transferred to another shevet. This is not an abrogation of the blessing. This kingship always returns to Yehudah. Any interruption is temporary. The blessing does not promise that there will never be an interruption. It promises that the kingship will never be permanently removed from the shevet.
“Be an enemy unto the people of Midyan and strike them. For they acted as enemies towards you through their plotting. They plotted against you in the matter of Peor and in the matter of Kazbi the daughter of Tzur their sister who was killed on the day of the plague for the matter of Peor.” (BeMidbar 25:17-18)
Hashem commands Moshe to treat the people of Midyan as enemies. Bnai Yisrael are commanded to make war with them. This is because Midyan allied with Moav. They joined in the plot to corrupt Bnai Yisrael.
The pasuk explains that Midyan shared responsibility for the “matter of Peor.” This phrase is not difficult to interpret. The women of Midyan and Moav attempted to induce the men of Bnai Yisrael to engage in idolatry. The idolatrous entity they introduced to Bnai Yisrael was Peor. The pasuk admonishes the people to strike Midyan in response to this nation’s efforts to introduce the worship of Peor among Bnai Yisrael. However, the pasuk adds that the people of Midyan should also be treated as enemies because of the “matter of Kazbi the daughter of Tzur.”
This phrase is difficult to understand. Kazbi was one of the women recruited to participate in the seduction of the men of Bnai Yisrael. She was one of the specific women who were involved in the matter of Peor. It seems that the “matter of Peor” and the “matter of Kazbi” are two references to the same incident and evil. Why does the pasuk refer to the incident with both of these descriptions? Why is the incident described as the matter of Peor and as the matter of Kazbi?
The commentaries offer various answers to this question. According to Rashi, the pasuk is not only an admonishment to strike against Midyan. The pasuk is also a warning. Hashem commands Bnai Yisrael to wage war with Midyan and explains the urgency of this mission. Midyan is a dangerous adversary. This nation is completely committed to the destruction of Bnai Yisrael. What is the indication of this commitment? The nation sent Kazbi, the daughter of Tzur, into the camp of Bnai Yisrael. They assigned her the role of seductress and harlot. This is remarkable! Kazbi was the daughter of Tzur. Tzur was one of the kings of Midyan. The people of Midyan were willing to defile a princess in order to destroy Bnai Yisrael. This is indicative of extreme, self-destructive hatred. Bnai Yisrael must protect itself from this desperate enemy.
Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra offers a different explanation of the passage. He explains that the pasuk is providing an enumeration of reasons for the war Bnai Yisrael is to wage. The first reason is that Bnai Yisrael must respond to the actions already taken by Midyan. Midyan plotted against Bnai Yisrael. Midyan attempted to corrupt Bnai Yisrael. Second, Bnai Yisrael should be mindful of the future. Pinchas had killed Kazbi, the daughter of Tzur. Tzur was a king. His daughter was a princess. Surely, the people of Midyan would wish to avenge the death of their princess! In short, Midyan had attempted to destroy Bnai Yisrael without provocation. Now, Midyan had an additional motivation – the death of their princess. Bnai Yisrael must protect themselves from Midyan. They must strike their enemy before Midyan can again plot against them. Mesechet Zevachim 101b.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:13.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Bi’at HaMikdash 5:12.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:13.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:13.  Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1998), p 141.  Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:18.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 25:18.