Pinchas: Of Transformation and Conformation
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, "Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aharon
HaKohen, turned away My anger from the Children of Israel, when he was
zealous with My jealousy in the midst of them, so that I didn't destroy the
Children of Israel in My jealousy." (Bamidbar 25:10)
The posuk is referring to Pinchas' act of zealousness at the end of last
week's parshah, when he killed Zimri (a prince from the tribe of Shimon),
and Cozbi, the Midianite princess sent in to lure Moshe. From amidst the
Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon HaKohen, saw and he arose
from amidst the assembly and took his spear in his hand. (Bamidbar 25:7)
After 176,000 Jews had died for worshipping Ba'al Peor, and 24,000 from the
tribe of Shimon died in a plague, Pinchas' act of zealousness restored the
order. As a reward for this, Pinchas attained the unattainable: the kehuna
This is because Pinchas had already been born when G-d told Moshe that
Aharon and his sons (i.e., Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar), and their
seed after them, would be priests forever. This meant children that would
thereafter be born to Elazar; not those that had already been born, like
Pinchas. This is why this week's parshah has to state:
" ... The Covenant of the Kehuna will be for him and his descendants after
him forever ... (Bamidbar 25:13)
There is only one problem, says the Pri Tzaddik: How could Pinchas
retroactively become a kohen (which is what he would have had to have done
to become a kohen, since G-d was not about to change the law just to let
Pinchas become a kohen)? The answer, says the Pri Tzaddik, comes from the
After Pinchas acted zealously ... and the tribe of Shimon came after him in
anger, his soul left him, at which time the two souls of Nadav and Avihu
entered him. (Zohar, Parashas Tzav 14b)
In other words, in the blink of an eye, the body of Pinchas both lost its
previous soul and inherited two new ones, or better yet, two older ones:
the souls of Nadav and Avihu. It was Nadav and Avihu who had died when they
offered the "strange fire" back in Parashas Shemini. Now, according to the
Zohar, it was the souls of Nadav and Avihu that had transformed Pinchas
into someone who could, in effect, retroactively become a kohen. In other
words, concludes the Pri Tzaddik, Pinchas' entrance into the Kehuna did not
constitute a change in G-d's law, but the continuation of it.
This introduces a new idea that is alluded to by the Ba'al HaTurim, who
states that Pinchas eventually became Eliyahu HaNavi. Normally,
reincarnation means that a soul comes back in another lifetime and in a new
body (usually unbeknownst to the person himself). However, this is usually
only after the person has died and "returned" to the ground.
Nevertheless, this had not been the case with Pinchas, whose life didn't
even skip a beat-literally. Instantaneously as Pinchas' own soul left him,
the souls of Nadav and Avihu entered him; according to the Arizal, when
Eliyahu's time came, that soul also entered Pinchas' body while he was
The addition of such souls, according to the Arizal, happens often in
history. For reasons known mostly to G-d, He sends the souls of tzaddikim
down as an "additions" to living individuals, sometimes for a short
duration, sometimes for the rest of a person's life. Usually it is special
souls being given to extraordinary people who have a major role to play in
Not only does this help to understand how Pinchas later became a kohen, but
it also reminds us that it is a mistake to judge people by what the
physical eye alone sees. We can judge actions, but it is very hard to judge
souls, if not impossible. This is something only G-d can do.
Reuvain, the first born of Yisroel: the children of Reuvain: Chanoch, the
family of Hachanochi ... (Bamidbar 26:5)
Since the nations spoke disparagingly of Yisroel, saying, "How can these
trace their descent by their tribes? Do they think that the Egyptians did
not overcome their mothers? If they proved themselves master of their
bodies, how much more so were they over their wives!" For this reason the
Holy One, Blessed is He, put His name upon them, with the letter "heh" on
one side and the letter "yud" on the other side, intimating that "I bear
testimony for them that they are the sons of their fathers." (Rashi)
Rashi is referring to the "heh" that appears at the beginning of each name,
and the "yud" that comes at the end of each name ("Hachanochi" as opposed
to "Chanoch" alone). The letters "yud" and "heh" are the first two letters
from G-d's Ineffable Name, which He allowed to be attached to the name of
each family to confirm the purity of its lineage.
If you think about it, it is quite remarkable that the Jewish people had
been so protected in Egypt. When it comes to all the other nations of
history, the Talmud states that Sancheriv successfully "confused" all of
them, so that no purebred pre-Sancheriv nation exists today (Brochos 28a).
Every nation has cross-populated to the point that it has lost just about
all relationship to its founding population. Except, that is, for the
Jewish people (in spite of the high rate of intermarriage throughout the
From this week's parshah, we can understand why. Preservation of the
species is not so much a matter of nature, which seems to lead to just the
opposite. It seems that preserving a nation has to do with Divine
Providence, which arranges for "things to work out" even when,
naturally-speaking, they ought not to. Somehow the Jewish people are
protected from total extinction.
But not all of the Jewish people, as Rashi also points out in this week's
parshah. Apparently, some of the families that left Egypt with the Jewish
people did not survive. The question is, why?
Perhaps the answer lies not only in the fact that G-d attached His Name to
ours, but also in the fact that our names have to be worthy of G-d's
inclusion. In other words, holiness can only attach itself to that which
can contain it, and if a family is not striving to grow spiritually, then
it ceases to be a "container" for G-d's Holy Light. When this happens,
though the physical aspect of the family may live on, the spiritual aspect
may, G-d forbid, die off. Eventually we see from this week's parshah that
this leads to physical extinction as well.
It is no different than the Bais HaMikdosh (Temple). Tradition tells us
that the entire time the Temple stood, the people believed they could sin
and be forgiven. It shocked them that non-Jewish hands could even come
close to the Temple, let alone destroy it. They failed to understand that
the Holy Light that filled the Temple did so as long as the building was
holy enough to contain it, which was dependent upon the level of
righteousness of the people.
This is what the Midrash means when it says that, at the time of the
destruction of the Temple, a voice came out from heaven and told
You grind already ground flour; you have killed an already killed people.
Eichah Rabbosi 1:43).
In other words, says the Nefesh HaChaim, the Jewish people, through wanton
behavior, caused the Temple to become a building that could not longer hold
its kedushah, and the result was a vulnerable stone building. It only
remained for Nebuchadnetzar to provide the final "hammer blow" and drag us
G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, "To these [families] the land shall be divided
as an inheritance ..." (Bamidbar 26:52)
As the nation approached the borders of Eretz Yisroel after 40 years of
wandering in the desert, life in the land became a closer reality. As a
result, this week's parshah discusses the division of the land among the
many families left to receive their eternal portion of the Holy Land.
However, not all of Eretz Yisroel was the same, and some lands were more
advantageous than others. Didn't any tribe complain about its portion?
Perhaps they would have ...
Had Not The Holy One, Blessed is He, made each portion find favor in the
settlers' eyes, Eretz Yisroel could not have been divided. (Yerushalmi Yoma
The truth is, the Talmud does record some discontent:
Zevulun said before The Holy One, Blessed is He, "To my brothers you gave
fields and vineyards, but to me you gave mountains and valleys; to my
brothers you gave land, but to me you gave lakes and rivers!" (Megillah 6a)
Apparently Zevulun was unaffected by the "chayn" of his portion, and thus
still found reason to complain. However, G-d's answer, perhaps, answers for
He [G-d] answered him, "Everyone will need you, because of the Chalazon ..."
The Chalazon was a special fish that provided the unique purple-blue die
used for the "techeles" thread of tzitzis. It was such a valuable commodity
that the tribe of Zevulun became very wealthy selling it to the rest of the
tribes. Perhaps, this is what the Talmud is alluding to, which is a lesson
not just about inheriting Eretz Yisroel, but about life in general: Don't
underestimate the value of what you have.
Very often in life, we tend to value what others possess, especially when
we ourselves don't possess it as well. However, as we learn from the
division of Eretz Yisroel, every portion has its own unique value, one that
is best suited for the tribe meant to inherit it. It's just a question of
finding that "chayn" by looking inwards, as opposed to outwards at the
portions of other people.
This is true about land, and, concludes the Talmud, it is true about
spouses and purchases. Divine Providence pairs husband and wife together
early in life, and purchaser and purchasee as well. Each possesses a chayn
that is apparent often only to the other spouse or the purchaser, whatever
the case may be. It is our job to seek and find that chayn, to hold on to
it, and to nurture it. Then we can fulfill the Mishnah's dictum:
Who is a wealthy person? One who is happy with his portion." (Pirkei Avos 4:1)
G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, "Command the Children of Israel, and tell them,
"My Offering, My Bread-Offering for My Fire-Offerings for a pleasing odor
to Me, you must offer in its appointed time ..." (Bamidbar 28:1)
Toward the end of the parshah, the discussion turns to sacrifices,
beginning with the Korban Tamid, the Continual-Offering. This was a
sacrifice that was brought twice daily, once at sunrise and once just
before sunset. It was a Korban Olah (Burnt-Offering), that is, a sacrifice
that was consumed on the altar and not eaten by the priests.
Of the tragedies that are mourned on the 17th of Tammuz (the fast day that
just passed), one is the cessation of this offering during the time of the
First Temple, or, according to others, during the time of the Second
Temple. There is an account of the latter in the Talmud:
When the House of Chashmonai was at civil war, Hyrkanus was outside [the
Temple] and Aristobolus was inside. Each day they would lower money in a
basket, and they [Hyrkanus' camp] would send up the two
Continual-Offerings. There was an elder there familiar with Greek wisdom,
and he hinted to them with Greek wisdom, and told them, "As long as they
perform the Temple service, we will not overcome them." The next day, after
they lowered down the money, they instead sent up a pig. When it reached
half-way up the wall, it dug its nails into the wall, and Eretz Yisroel
shook 400 miles. At that time, they cursed the one who raised pigs, and the
one who teaches his son Greek wisdom. (Sota 49b)
There are many lessons to be derived from this account, one of which is the
underlying basis for Jewish continuity, which the Continual-Offering
represented (see this week's parshah for 5757). This is why it was a pig
that Hyrkanus sent up to replace the Tamid-Offering, and why it was "Greek
wisdom" that led to this.
Though there is no greater symbol of "treif" in the Torah world than the
pig, in actuality, the pig has at least one of the two signs that make an
animal kosher: split hooves. The Midrash says that "he" uses this to fool
Jews into thinking he is kosher, sticking his hoofed feet forward while
concealing the fact that he does not chew his cud (the second sign of a
kosher animal). Since the latter is internal and the former is external,
many people fall for this ruse, and end up eating treif that they believe
is in fact, kosher (if this is not true literally, then it is certainly
This, says the holiday of Chanukah, was the problem with Greek wisdom, and
by extension, Western thought as well. So much of it is based on "good"
ideas and sound thinking, and has led to very positive results, such as
social services, etc.; that part can be compared to the "split hooves" of
the pig. On the other hand, what is not revealed to many are the many
internal moral contradictions that eventually corrupt society and those who
adhere to its values, resulting, eventually, in denial of G-d and of true
moral values, all of to which history bears testimony.
This is why the hooves of the pig, after hitting the walls of the Temple,
caused such a massive earthquake. This was to indicate to the Jews there
and all those who would follow that it is either all kosher, or not kosher
at all. Half-kosher is both beguiling and ultimately destructive because it
is the biggest threat to Jewish continuity, since Jews pursue it with a
false sense of confidence and with little concern for the future of
Judaism, and the world for that matter.
As they say, "If you want to make Torah popular, ban it; outlaw it. Then
Jews will come from all over asking, 'What is Torah? How can we learn it?'
In other words, as long as society permits Torah to be learned then
countless Jews feel little or no sense of urgency to learn it and preserve
it. As long as our hosts' society make us feel "at home," then we Jews tend
to become very much at home ... in someone else's house. The result:
assimilation, intermarriage, and a complete loss of Jewish identity. It
happened in Babylonia, it happened in Spain, it happened in pre-war Europe,
and it has already happened in America as well.
However, that is never the end of the story. The conflict between
Aristobolus and Hyrkanus was resolved shortly after-by the Romans who came
in and slaughtered myriads of Jews. This was all on the way to destroying
the Temple, Jerusalem, and the second Jewish Commonwealth.
We're still living out that exile today, and although this lesson is one
that we are supposed to contemplate everyday, it is especially important to
do so during these three weeks, which began with the fast of the 17th of
Tammuz, and which will end with the fast day of Tisha B'Av. Perhaps taking
the message seriously will began a wave of national teshuvah, and allow us
to merit to be the generation to witness the transformation of these fast
days into holidays of joy instead!