Posted on Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
- When Aharon dies, his son, Elazar, becomes the High Priest. When Aharon was alive, the Torah gave very little attention to the other priests, and G-d commanded very little of them aside from normal priestly service. When Pinchas becomes a priest (though he was obviously already from the priestly class) as reward for his valiant act of killing Zimri and Casbi, we are presented with a new situation: the all-star member of the priestly family notbeing the High Priest.Though Elazar could have been a major player, he is soon phased out. It appears that he was meant to be to Yehoshua what Aharon was to Moshe, but Yehoshua never uses him as the bearer of the Urim V’Tumim. (The Urim V’Tumim is the breastplate worn by the priest that contains the names of the twelve tribes covered in stones. It was used as a sort of oracle, by which Hashem would communicate certain commands. The mechanism involved the priest interpreting the order of the letters to determine Hashem’s will at that moment.) As Gemarra Eiruvin 63a mentions, ‘we never find that Yehoshua needed him. He was punished for making legal statements in front of his rabbi (Moshe).’Elazar remains a minor player in the story of the Jews’ travels to Israel. After he discusses legal matters in front of his teacher, he does nothing of note. Though he remains the High Priest, it is clear that Pinchas is the new star of the priestly family. He was chosen to go out to war with the Jews against the Midianites. The Midrash records his supernatural feats in fighting Bil’am, as Bil’am made his arms into two tablets of stone and flew into the air, Pinchas did the same, following him higher and higher until he found him bowing before the throne of glory. He immediately placed the head plate of Hashem on Bil’am and brought him down, where he was tried by the Sanhedrin and killed.Pinchas’ superstar career continues with his mission as one of Yehoshua’s spies into the land of Israel, and continues even further when he becomes Eliyahu the Prophet, performing amazing acts of salvation and miracles for the Jewish people throughout history, even to this day.
Was Pinchas always so great? Why, then, did he just now become a priest? The Gemarra leaves the question open: ‘Pinchas was not a Cohen until he killed Zimri.’ Was Pinchas always worthy of being a Cohen, but was overlooked? Was he unable or unwilling to be anointed as a Cohen previously? Did something happen at the moment of killing Zimri that made him into a different person?
It seems that a cross-section of historical event and personal disposition launched Pinchas into the spotlight. When Pinchas grabbed his spear and raced to the scene of the crime, risking his life in order to sanctify G-d’s name, there certainly was a great deal of personal momentum behind that moment. It is clear that Pinchas had strong feelings (to say the least) about this cluster of issues. But those volcanic feelings might only have one or two opportunities to be expressed in a useful way.
Similarly, there are moments of opening within the flow of history or culture when a great figure can step in and create real change. This is often true in terms of poetry and music – is there someone who can effectively express what everyone is feeling? Zimri’s challenge to Moshe, as Gemarra Sanhedrin 82a describes it, was a crucial moment for the Jewish people. Their personal and national journeys could have gone in very different directions based upon the results of that moment – with Moshe being vindicated as a leader or rejected as a hypocrite.
But such crossroads in history open for but a moment, and only very specific people are capable of entering. History needed Pinchas - as the Gemarra Sanhedrin 82a reports, Pinchas says to Moshe, ‘Great Uncle, didn’t you teach us, as you descended Sinai, that a zealot is allowed to attack one who has relations with an Aramean woman?’ Moshe replied, ‘Let the one who read the letter deliver the message!’
In the Torah we see only the eruption of Pinchas’ passion. Where was that passion before it emerged? What is the nature of that potential before it is actualized? Until it is expressed, it seems fair to say that it does not fit anywhere. It sticks out as potential unrealized; it is a passion without a vessel to contain it. It might cause its bearer a good amount of awkwardness and anguish, bringing him or her to doubt its relevance, to wish it didn’t exist, or to attempt to ignore it. But when it is called upon, an entire lifetime can retrospectively make sense.
If a person is firmly rooted in the belief that every facet of his personality, every talent and desire, is given for a purpose, then the delay in expressing it will cause no anguish: rather, each day might see it grow. We find the same phenomenon by David. When he decides to step forward to fight Galiat (also known as Goliath), he is told that he stands no chance against the giant. His response is that, in shepherding his father’s sheep, he was able to wrestle down a bear and a lion in order to save the sheep. At the time, he might have had a deep sense of blessing around his abilities as a shepherd, but absolutely no sense of how it would fit in with the rest of his life. But he did not spend his time looking for an opportunity to show his strength – it seems he spent his time deepening his relationship to G-d and firming his conviction to risk his life for the sake of G-d and G-d’s people.
Similarly Pinchas: was he waiting for an opportunity to kill a Jewish man having relations with an Aramean woman? More likely he was deepening his commitment to the sexual purity of the Jewish people and the sanctity of G-d’s name as he watched from the sidelines. When his opportunity came, like that of David, no decision was necessary.
The nature of that potential is a formless willingness, without any specific form of expression toward which to aspire. Its negative side is that it can render other aspects of one’s life as meaningless, creating a deep imbalance whereby this willingness becomes the locus of most of one’s emotional energy. If it is expressed prematurely, it can bring destruction,. If it is denied rather than fed, it can lead to further personality split and cause unnecessary rejection of the ‘less important’ parts of life. If it is allowed to burn out of control, it can be expressed in premature and violent ways, as in the case of Nadav and Avihu. Therefore, that dangerous fire must be simultaneously fed and contained. We are challenged to know the passion that sits within us, to feed it, and to wait with infinite patience for the right opportunity to express it.
The situation is further complicated by the likelihood that Pinchas experienced his fire as contrary to what he understood his nature as a Cohen to be. Whereas a Cohen is associated with kindness (like Aharon, who is described as loving all creatures and bringing them close to Torah), Pinchas might have noticed a fire in himself that could be perceived as angry. Such a person is required to accept the opposites within him, not attempting to tritely resolve them. There will be a time, Pinchas shows us, when even those seemingly opposite feelings will have their day, and the logic behind them will emerge. After all, such a passion might best be trusted into the hands of a Cohen, who is disposed toward kindness.
G-d’s blessing to Pinchas, therefore, contains a covenant of peace. As Rebbe Nachman tells us in lesson 33, ‘we must pursue peace, in order that there be peace among Israel, and peace within a person, between all of his traits.’ That inner peace, which Pinchas demonstrated, allows a person to perpetuate peace. As R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes in his commentary on the Torah, ‘It was the valiant act of Pinchas that saved the people and restored to them their peace with G-d and His Law, thus also restoring to them the foundations for their own true inner peace…’
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