Parshas Pinchas: The Blessing of Peace

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July 02 2010

The primary story line that connects last and this week's Torah portions is simply amazing.

After their failed attempt to curse the Jewish people, Bilaam and Balak devise a backup plan where the temptation of sexual immorality - in the form of seductresses from Moav and Midyan - is coupled with idolatry. This new plan is immensely successful; so much so that God punishes the Jewish people with a deadly plague.

In the midst of this crisis, when you thought things couldn't get any worse, Zimri the prince of the tribe of Shimon commits an act of adultery with a Midianite princess in the center of the camp, in front of everyone. Reacting to this lewd and disgraceful display, Pinchas rises up and, in an act of religious zealotry, fatally stabs the offending parties and halts the deadly plague (Bamidbar 25:6-8).

That was last week's portion.

This week we read of Hashem's praise for Pinchas' actions and the blessings He bestows because of those actions. The first blessing given to Pinchas is "brisi shalom," the blessing of peace (25:12). Despite our inherently positive association with peace, the actual meaning of the blessing is quite vague; peace from who or what? In fact, the commentators struggle to understand the implications of this beracha.

The second blessing is "brit kehunas olam," the blessing of priesthood (25:13). This beracha is even more confounding because if Pinchas wasn't a kohen - a matter of genealogy - how would this help; and since the verse (25:11) attests that Pinchas was in fact a direct descendent of Aharon Ha-Kohen, why did he need this blessing? This too elicits different suggestions by the commentators.

Perhaps one unified approach can be offered to understand the complimentary relationship between the two berachos.

The Chizkuni suggests that the blessing of priesthood was necessary because even though Pinchas was a kohen, he should have been disqualified from the priestly service, as Halacha dictates when a kohen kills another person (Berachos 32b). The Chizkuni explains that even when justified - as it was in this case - the very act of taking another human life leaves a permanent stain on the human soul which transforms the person into an entirely different being. And this change is incompatible with the model of love and peace that a kohen much display. Pinchas' career in the priesthood should have been over if not for God miraculously suspending this inevitable reality and guaranteeing that Pinchas not become tainted.

This understanding dovetails beautifully with the explanation offered by the Netziv (Ha'amek Davar) of the initial blessing of peace. He explains that this wasn't - as other commentators suggest - a blessing of protection from an external enemy, but rather from an internal one; it wasn't to safeguard him from an outside source, it was to protect Pinchas from himself.

The Netziv maintains that, similar to what was mentioned above, the violent act of killing another person typically has a deleterious affect on the person who does the killing. In this case Pinchas' actions - even though fully justified - should have naturally afflicted with him emotional unrest and a quick temper. But, the Netziv explains, Pinchas was blessed with inner peace and tranquility so that he could go on with his life unscathed by this brutal, albeit necessary, action.

What emerges, therefore, according to these explanations, is that the two blessings go hand in hand as they teach us about both the story of Pinchas and about zealotry and violent behavior in general. There is a very important lesson which must be taken from this story.

What Pinchas did was not only justified, but also heroic, and saved the lives of countless numbers of Jews. Diplomacy wasn't what was needed and it wasn't what Pinchas did. It was his dramatic act of force which saved the Jewish people and which merited God's blessings.

But we must not forget the perils which inevitably accompany acts of violence. There is a price which is usually paid for such heroism. Pinchas was divinely protected from the negative impact his actions should have caused but future heroes have no such guarantee. In more recent times this notion was expressed by Golda Meir who famously remarked, "I can forgive the Arab's for killing my children, but I cannot forgive them for turning my children into killers." While I have always been uncomfortable with the first half of Meir's declaration, the second part finds strong support in the commentaries of this week's Sidra.

Let us hope that when the need arises we are blessed to have heroes such as Pinchas who will do whatever it takes to protect the Jewish people. And let us also hope that those heroes are similarly blessed and protected from any negative side effects of their heroism. And finally, let us pray, with all of our hearts, that the day will come soon when the blessing of peace will render the need for such heroism obsolete.


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