You could hardly find more of an outsider in Jewish history than Pinchas.
This young man simply seems to have missed the boat. He was the son of Elazar, grandson of Aaron the High Priest. Moses had anointed Aaron and his four sons, who, in turn, would carry on the priestly dynasty. But Pinchas was born after all of the positions were filled.
The anomaly was that while his father Elazar became high priest after Aaron’s death, Pinchas was denied priestly duties. He remained an ordinary Levite, the tribe that carried the Tabernacle from one desert spot to another.
If this wasn’t bad enough, Pinchas came under ridicule for his family. Like Moses, Elazar had taken one of the daughters of Jethro for marriage. Jethro was a Midianite and himself a priest — except his forte had been idol worship. The nasty ones called Pinchas Ben Puti, or someone who fattens up calves for sacrifice to the god of Midian.
Under these circumstances, Pinchas might have grown up to be a bitter man, cheated by destiny. He could have gone the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who grew up without parents, abused by his stepfather and recruited to become an assassin.
Pinchas’ hour came when the Jewish people were dying by the tens of thousands from a plague linked to Peor, the idol of Midian. Jewish men had been seduced by the women of this Arabian kingdom and after sex were ordered to defecate in front of Peor, the prescribed manner of worship.
Moses and Elazar were trying to stop the mass orgy when they came across a couple in front of the Tabernacle. It was the prince of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri the son of Solu, and the princess of Midian, Cozbi the daughter of Zur. Zimri, under pressure from his constituency, challenged Moses and Elazar.
“Moses, is this forbidden or permitted?” the Talmud quotes Zimri as he prepared to copulate. “If this is forbidden, who permitted a Midianite daughter to you?”
Neither Moses nor Elazar knew what to say. The people around them wept.
At that point, Pinchas arrived. His knowledge of the Torah was nowhere near that of his father or Moses. But he knew that this abomination must be stopped — now. He also remembered something that Moses had taught.
“We have received from you that one who fornicates with an Aramean woman is attacked by zealots,” Pinchas said.
Moses agreed and pointed to his nephew, “The one who reads the letter must be its messenger,” Moses said.
Pinchas drove his spear into the genitalia of Zimri and Cozbi. He then lifted the bodies and cried to the heavens, “Master of the Universe, because of these two 24,000 people will fall?”
Judaism is based on the rule of law. The Torah mandates a multi-layered judicial system meant to ensure that even the worst of sinners gets his day in court. If a sin is committed, then the suspect cannot be punished by vigilantes, rather he must be brought to justice.
And yet there are exceptions: One of them was the plague at Shitim when chaos ruled, the leadership was helpless and the sinners were brazen.
Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest 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.
Ovadia Ben Yaakov Sforno, the 16th Century Italian sage, says Pinchas saved the Jewish people. Had he not appeared, G-d would have destroyed them all. His anger was kindled by idol worship and neither the leadership nor the people could stop it. That made them complicit.
And yet Pinchas, the outsider, the ridiculed layman in a family of priests, intervened. He could have walked away. He could have let the others — whether the priests or his detractors — take the blame.
Pinchas also restored the honor of his late grandfather, Aaron. Aaron was blamed for the sin of the golden calf nearly 40 years earlier. That resulted in a bloody tragedy as well. Pinchas corrected that historical wrong.
“Therefore, say,” G-d told Moses, “‘I hereby give him My covenant of peace.'”
Pinchas was rewarded for putting his life on the line to save the Jewish people. G-d established a covenant of peace with the nation and also made Pinchas into a priest, eventually the high priest, who would serve for many years.
Decades later, Pinchas would be known by another name. Elijah, the prophet who also would save the Jewish people from idol worship, then the official religion of the Israelite kingdom. He would be alone, the masses too scared to protest.
The Midrash says that the eradication of sin brings peace to the Jews and the rest of the world. The ways of the Torah represent divine peace that can never die.
For a split second when Pinchas stopped the abomination at Shitim, he turned into Elijah. Levi Yitzhak from Berdichev says Pinchas brought upon the Jewish people divine mercy that stopped the plague. Unwittingly, he had turned into a leader, appointed the commander in the war against Midian.
After the dust settled, Elijah returned to being Pinchas. He had fulfilled his duty although things would never be the same.