At the end of last week’s Parsha, Torah reading, of Balak, some of the Children of Israel committed prostitution and idol worship, including one couple, a Jewish tribal prince and a Midianite women who did so very publicly. This was a form of rebellion against all that was holy, all that was central to what it meant to be God’s people, and ultimately, a brazen public affront to the leader, Moshe (Moses), and to God.
Moshe and the leadership did not know what to say or do; they could not remember what action was to be taken in a case like this. The leaders were bewildered and paralyzed.
At that moment, Pinchas, Aharon’s (Aaron’s) grandson took a spear and killed both sinners. He did this at great risk to himself, not being a leader, not even being a Kohen, a priest, because at that time, the priesthood was only designated to those who had been anointed as a Kohen – Aharon and his son Elazar and their future generations. Pinchas had not been anointed.
In the beginning of this week’s Parsha, named for the hero, Pinchas, it says in Numbers 25:11, “Pinchas the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, has turned My anger away from the Children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the Children of Israel because of My zeal.” God was so angry at the people, he wanted to destroy them. Pinchas, by himself, by his action, saved Israel. A plague had already begun killing many thousands, and Pinchas’ act stopped it in its tracks.
Had Pinchas not stepped forward, what might have happened? Perhaps God would finally have had enough, even were Moshe to plead to God for Israel to be forgiven as the Jewish leader had in the past. And would Moshe have done so had he the chance before Pinchas acted? Maybe Moshe had had enough as well. He was so shocked he was speechless. Perhaps this experiment of a people granted liberation from the bondage of Egypt was to come to an end.
In verse 13 it says, “It shall be for him (Pinchas) and for his descendants after him an eternal covenant of Kehunah, priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel.” By taking action, Pinchas not only earned the priesthood for himself, he made amends for the nation.
One man, doing one thing, assured the continuity of the Jewish people.
Our Rabbis tell us, that Pinchas was Eliyahu, Elijah the prophet, and Eliyahu was Pinchas. There is some discussion as to how that could be, Eliyahu living hundreds of years after Pinchas. Some say it really was Pinchas who lived a very long life, others say Pinchas’ soul entered Eliyahu, and yet others say it means they were the same in how they acted, in that they were zealous for God.
Let’s look deeper into why these two great Jewish leaders could have been one and the same in whichever fashion. In the Talmud – books of Jewish legal discussions and commentary dating back over 1500 years (Bava Metzia 114b), Rashi, the preeminent Jewish medieval commentator, says, “Eliyahu was Pinchas, because Eliyahu, says (I Kings 19:10) “I have been zealous for the Lord,” similar to what God says regarding Pinchas as noted above, (Numbers 25:11), “…his zealously avenging Me…”
Like Pinchas, Eliyahu risked his life to be zealous for God. In a column I wrote about Brit Milah, the Jewish circumcision ceremony, I explained why there was an honorary Kiseh Shel Eliyahu, Chair of Eliyahu, present at each Brit Milah:
According to tradition, there are two reasons the Midrash (a collection of ancient biblical commentaries) gives for this custom. First, when the evil king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel forbade Brit Milah, Eliyahu risked his life by proclaiming there would be no rain till the evil decree was abolished. For that concern, the prophet was rewarded by being an honorary attendee at every Brit for all eternity.
Another reason was actually a rebuke. Because Eliyahu felt many of those who could insure Brit Milah of their children were not doing so when they actually were, God told him he would have to be at each Brit in perpetuity to witness that the very important Mitzvah, commandment, was indeed being performed.
Regardless of the reason, we see that like Pinchas, Eliyahu was a zealot for God. And not just for all the commandments the people were to keep, but for very importantly, the commandment of Brit Milah. The fulfillment of this commandment, in and of itself, allows an infant to enter into the Brit, the covenant of God, and insures the continuity of the Jewish people.
Both Pinchas and Eliyahu did what it took to save the Jewish people’s future. And there have been oh so many times in our history when it looked as if there would be no future.
In fact, just a couple days ago, we began the “Three Weeks,” the three week mourning period which culminates on Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, when among other things, both Jewish Temples were destroyed and many were killed or enslaved. This happened because of sin – how people acted toward God and how people acted toward each other. (Talmud Yoma 9b.)
What can we learn from Pinchas and Eliyahu, and especially during this sorrowful period of our history?
We see that one person can matter. And one deed can matter. Now even if desperate times call for desperate measures, a nation’s survival doesn’t necessarily mean one should look to violence to make a point – in fact, some Rabbis feel Pinchas went too far too fast – although at times, there may very well be no choice but to take up arms. History, after all, has taught the world cruel lessons.
To counter evil, to perhaps even ward off evil, continuity of the Jewish people, indeed the continuity of mankind, is not just for all to refrain from doing that which is wicked, but could simply be one person doing one thing, one good thing even in the most difficult of times. Again and again. Every person. An accumulation of singular positive deeds to insure lasting humanity.
The actions of Pinchas and Eliyahu, along with the mourning period in which we now find ourselves, should cause us to reflect on our times and how we react to adversity.