THERE IS AN old joke that maybe you never heard, you heard but forgot, or you don’t mind hearing again. It’s about a man who who wanted to be a kohen, and approached a rabbi to ordain him for money. “You can’t buy your way into the kehunah—priesthood!” he told the man with resolve, who promptly left and went looking for a more lenient rabbi. However, the second rabbi, though tempted to take the man’s money and let the fool think he was kohen, was overwhelmed by his conscience in the end, and told the man the same thing. Frustrated, the man who would be a kohen went looking for the least scrupulous rabbi he could find, and repeated his request for the third and final time. To his delight, the so-called rabbi before him did not hesitate and granted him immediate access to the sacred kehunah by uttering some random Hebrew words the man did not recognize. The man, elated, took out his checkbook to pay his entrance fee when the rabbi asked him, “Tell me, why was it so important for you to be a kohen that you were willing to pay so much for it?” The man finished signing the check, sat back in the chair, sighed, and said, “You see rabbi, my grandfather was a kohen…my father was a kohen…so I wanted to be a kohen as well!”
Ha-ha. I often wonder how people think of such jokes, which seem kind of clever. I suspect that they start with the punchline, which came up at some point in real life, and then built the fictitious joke around it.
This last Shabbos I too bought my way into the kehunah, being only a Levi. Not really. There was no kohen in shul for Krias HaTorah, and it was a shul where they auction off the aliyos, so I bought the first aliyah. But as the gabbi made sure to call out, I was only bimkom kohen, in place of a kohen. I was still not entitled to have terumah (tithes) for Kiddush, only ma’aser rishon meant for Levi’im.
Kohanim were, are, a special breed of people. Though the Temple does not stand and kohanim cannot function in their divinely designated roles, they are still treated differently. For example, they are called up first to the Torah, they lead the bentching when there is a mezuman (at least three men over Bar Mitzvah who ate bread together), and you really should not ask them to take your garbage out for you.
Special people require special measures. It’s certainly not all fun and games for the kohanim, as this week’s parsha begins to detail. If the man in the joke knew what it meant to be a practicing kohen and how curtailed their activities were, he would have had to be paid to become one. Eisav was so disenchanted with the kehunah that he sold it, and all of its attendant rights in this world and the next one, to Ya’akov for a bowl of lentils. He lived to regret his decision, but he clearly was never cut out for the job from the start. If anything, he was the antithesis of the kehunah.
WHAT DOES IT mean to be cut out for the kehunah? There are different ways to answer this question, but the best way is to find a non-kohen who did something to become a kohen. The only person we know like that was Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen. He did have to “buy” into the kehunah, even though his grandfather and father were kohanim. Since he was already born when God officially designated Aharon and his sons, and those born henceforth, kohanim, Pinchas was excluded.
But money wasn’t going to work to change the status of Pinchas. The currency to buy kohanship was of a different nature altogether.
The Torah tell us what that currency is right here:
Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen 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. Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace. It will be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of kehunah, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the Children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 25:11-13)
There you have it, succinct and specific. A kohen is someone who turns God’s anger away from the Jewish people, the main role of the service in the Temple. A kohen must be zealous on behalf of God; there is no place for selfishness or laxity in the service of God. In short, though God owns everything, He really owns the kohanim. They have to separate themselves from all else to serve Him.
Thus, the main trait of the kohanim is mesiras Nefesh, self-sacrifice for God, which is also in this week’s parsha:
You shall not desecrate My Holy Name. I shall be sanctified amidst the Children of Israel. (Vayikra 22:32)
What do we learn by the Torah adding “I shall be sanctified, etc.?” Surrender your life, and sanctify My name…And when one sacrifices oneself, one shall do so with the willingness to die, because anyone who sacrifices themself anticipating a miracle, God will not perform a miracle for them… (Rashi)
As my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Noach Weinberg, zt”l, used to tell us, it is easy to die once for God than it is to live every day for Him, but that’s what the kohanim had to do. The average Jew might do that at different points during their day, if that. The average kohen during Temple times had to do that all day, even when he wasn’t on duty.
When Pinchas went after Zimri to end the profanation of God’s name, he did it without expecting a miracle. He could have easily been killed by Zimri in self-defense or by one of his guards along the way, but that didn’t deter him. Even worse, he could have killed Zimri at the wrong moment and been deemed a murderer, not a savior, but that didn’t stop him either.
All that mattered to Pinchas was doing what he could in the moment to fix a terrible situation on behalf of God, and on behalf of the Jewish people. And for acting like a kohen, he became a kohen, he and all of his descendants after him. And not just any kohen…
EVERYONE KNOWS WHO Pinchas is, and everyone knows who Eliyahu HaNavi is. But how many know that Pinchas was Eliyahu HaNavi?
The Ba’al HaTurim points this out at the beginning of Parashas Pinchas, but it is the Arizal who revealed the spiritual mechanics behind it in Sha’ar HaGilgulim, Introduction 32. He explains that after Pinchas killed Zimri and brought him out on his spear, a mob formed to lynch Pinchas. “How dare Pinchas kill a prince of the Jewish people!” they said in anger. Apparently, it was enough of a shock for Pinchas to cause his soul to temporarily leave him, though no one actually saw him temporarily die.
But when his soul returned, it did not come back alone. It returned with other souls, most notably the souls of Nadav and Avihu. The addition of their souls, since they had been kohanim when they died, already conferred kehunah on Pinchas, though it had to be officially reported and confirmed by God Himself.
The new and expanded version of Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen didn’t stop there. Two more souls joined the holy mix, once called Eliyahu HaTishbi and another called Eliyahu HaGiladi. Eliyahu may have been one person, but his soul had two parts. Both of them were necessary to reincarnate into Pinchas to transform into Eliyahu HaNavi.
This is not the main point, but it needs to be explained. There are two types of reincarnation. The main one most people know occurs when a person dies and their soul returns in a new body in a different life. As long as the soul remains in the body, the person lives. When God takes it back, the person passes from this world.
The second kind of gilgul—reincarnation is less known, called ibur. The “new” soul is not the person’s, but someone else’s. This one comes while a person is already living and can leave without killing them, though the host will feel a serious spiritual letdown when it happens.
Ibur, which is what Pinchas experienced, is either to help the host person fulfill mitzvos they can’t on their own, or for the ibur soul to perform mitzvos they might have missed out on during their own lifetime. In Pinchas’s case, the ibur was clearly for him and Nadav and Avihu, who also achieved tikun through Pinchas’s life (and other iburim after him). It’s all in Sha’ar HaGilgulim and Sha’ar HaPesukim.
It’s quite ironic, is it not? Pinchas was prepared to give up his life early for the sake of God, and even did momentarily, and ended up living forever! Pinchas as Eliyahu lived for hundreds of years. After he died, he became an angel and comes back for every bris. He joins us every Pesach Seder, and he will eventually return to announce the arrival of Moshiach.
Everyone else who does not sacrifice for God all that much dies a normal death and that’s it. They might get some Heavenly help from time to time, and reincarnate without any knowledge of who they are or why they came back. Well, that’s not entirely true. We may not know exactly what to rectify, but we do know that the currency of the World-to-Come is mesiras Nefesh. And like with everything to do with God, the more you give, the more you get…as long as you give, not on the condition to get (Pirkei Avos 1:3).
THIS IS THE most controversial week in the entire Jewish calendar. In the beginning the controversy was only in the Jewish world, but then in recent decades it spread internationally. It seems, historically, that when we do not resolve our internal conflicts in a timely manner, God brings outside nations to mix in to the fray.
I’m talking about Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, regarding which there are many opinions. Secular Israelis celebrate it as a national holiday from work and make a lot of barbecues. Thank God they moved passed bopping each other on the head with noisy plastic hammers.
Religious Zionists celebrate the day as an integral part of the final redemption. Once they might have thought it was the redemption itself, but too much negative history has happened since then to make that seem logical. But in their minds, getting back Eretz Yisroel in 1948, even if it was built up by non-God-believing Jews. It was God giving the land back to his people after 1300 years in Arab hands.
The Charedi world has even more opinions, ranging from seeing the secular state as the work of the Satan, to complete indifference, to yes, it is a part of the redemption, but who knows which? My opinion is no secret, if you have read at least one of the books I have written on the topic of Eretz Yisroel and redemption.
For now, I am just going to share something that was shared with me recently. You may know it already, and I may have mentioned it in the past and just forgotten that I did. In any case, this is it.
One of the most famous verses to do with redemption is this one from Yeshaya:
The least one shall become a thousand, and a smallest one a strong nation; I God will hasten it in its time. (Yeshaya 60:22)
See the Gemora on Sanhedrin 98a about how this verse is understood regarding an early or last-minute redemption.
This is the interesting part. On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, in favor of the Partition Plan, while making some adjustments to the boundaries between the two states proposed by it.
What makes this vote by the United Nations so significant is what the GR”A (Vilna Gaon) said hundreds of years ago. If the Jewish people merit the final redemption through teshuvah and good deeds, then Eretz Yisroel will be handed over to them on a silver platter, and the Messianic Era will begin. If not, then it can only be given to the Jewish people by the nations of the world, as happened, the Gaon said, in the days of Koresh (Cyrus). The GR”A based himself on a verse from Shir HaShirim.
In Koresh’s time, it was only a matter of getting one ruler to sign on to allowing the Jews to return back to the land of their fathers. In 1947, there were a lot more nations to get to agree to allow the Jewish people back to their land. How was that going to happen? The Brisker Rav at that time was quoted as saying that the only reason why the UN came into existence was to make this vote possible.
The significance of the vote is greater than this when you consider the backstory as well, which I detail in my book, “Drowning in Pshat.” The undeniable Hashgochah Pratis blows the idea of it being the result of the Satan clear out of the water, especially when you consider just how convoluted Jewish history has been until now. It’s not that we lose the right to redemption. It’s that we lose the right to see how what God is doing is part of that redemption.
In any case, it turns out the gematria of “hasten in its time—achishenah b’ittah” is 850. If you recognize this number, it is because it is two less than the gematria of the word v’noshantem, 852. As Rashi explains, if God had waited until the 852nd year since entering Eretz Yisroel, the Jewish people would have been destroyed because of their sins. Instead, God destroyed the Temple and exiled the people two years earlier so they could be saved, and eventually redeemed (Rashi, Devarim 4:25).
What is also significant is that the Jewish date of the UN vote was Kislev 16, 5708. If Kislev is spelled with a Yud, as it is supposed to be and is here:
The words of Nehemiah the son of Chacaliah. And it came to pass in the month of Kislev [in] the twentieth year that I was in Shushan the capital. (Nechemiah 1:1)
the gematria is 16 (day) + 126 (Kislev) + 708 (the year less 5000 which we ignore since that number only changes every millennium), or 850, the same as the gematria of achishenah b’ittah. (As an aside, Nechemiah was the appointed governor of Eretz Yisroel during the beginning of the Second Temple period. He was instrumental in rebuilding the defenses of Jerusalem, and provided stability and management to the returning Jews from Bavel, where the Jews were first exiled.)
What does this mean? What should it mean?
That will depend upon which group you subscribe to regarding the events of Jewish history over the last 100 years or so. Actually, you might as well go back over the last 4,000 years, because it’s all one history, quite convoluted, and filled with many examples of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The knowing heart will get its facts straight before forming an opinion and choosing its reaction. At the end of the day, you only have to answer to God, Who was the One who apolitically said:
I am God, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God to you. (Vayikra 25:38)