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Pinchas: Appreciating a New Hero

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Jul 15, 2011

Having taken decisive action to stop the deadly plague that was ravaging the nation, Pinchas is certainly deserving of honor and acclaim. In fact, Hashem is effusive in His praise and rewards him generously: Pinchas is described as the one who “heshiv es chamasi,” turned God’s wrath away from the Jewish people, “be’kano es kinasi,” when he avenged God’s honor; and as a result, “hineni nosen lo es berisi shalom,” Pinchas is rewarded with the “covenant of peace” and then, “ve’haysoh lo u-le’zaro acharav beris kehunas olam,” he and his descendants are also given a “covenant of eternal priesthood” (Bamidbar 25:11-13).  

And yet, the just reward that Pinchas receives raises the question why others were not similarly repaid for their efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. After all, Moshe saved the nation from destruction after the chet ha-egel, yet where is the mention of his reward? And why didn’t Aharon receive great praise or a special covenant for stopping an earlier plague – in the aftermath of Korach’s rebellion – which also threatened the people? Pinchas was unquestionably courageous and his actions were clearly heroic but he was not the first hero of the Jewish people; why, then, was he the only one who was so lavishly and publicly rewarded for his efforts?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (Oznayim Le’Torah) explains that the special treatment that Pinchas received stemmed from the fact that before this incident he was a virtual unknown. While Pinchas is mentioned previously in the lineage of Levi (Shemos 6:25), there is no reference to anything that would distinguish him from anyone else in his family or the nation. In fact, when the nesi’im were chosen from each tribe it was not Pinchas but one of his cousins who was elevated. Moreover, according to some commentators Pinchas wasn’t even anointed to serve along with the rest of his family as a practicing kohen (see Rashi, 25:13). In retrospect it is clear that until he took this dramatic action, Pinchas may have lived a virtuous life, but it was an anonymous one at that. 

Consistent with this observation, R. Sorotzkin notes that there is a tradition that the first time Pinchas’ name is mentioned in this week’s parsha (25:11) it is written with a small yud. R. Sorotzkin suggests that perhaps this is meant to symbolize that in the “big picture” and compared to other, more illustrious, members of his family Pinchas was a “pashuter yid”– not bad, but nothing special.

In light of this background we can now understand the different reactions to the heroism of Moshe and Aharon, on the one hand, and Pinchas on the other. R. Sorotzkin explains that while it’s true that Moshe and Aharon did great things, but “ro’ey Yisrael sha’ani,” they were leaders and, “aleihem mutal,” that’s what leaders are supposed to do. It was their responsibility to do whatever was necessary to protect the Jewish people. Moshe and Aharon did what was expected of them as leaders and – given that expectation – there was no fanfare and they received no public accolades for their actions.

But Pinchas wasn’t a leader and this wasn’t his responsibility. In the face of a terrible calamity he rose to the challenge – and out of obscurity – to save the Jewish people.

Without expectations he achieved greatness and for this he was justly praised and rewarded.

This story has inspired many people who, like Pinchas, have made enormous and lasting contributions to the Jewish people without any official position of leadership and expectation of accomplishment.

One amazing example is the story of Rabbi Dovid Dryan, a simple shochet and mohel who lived in Gateshead, England. Despite his lack of formal leadership in the community it was he who originally conceived of the idea of starting a kollel and it was he who envisioned the impact that such a project could have on this small and sleepy community. R. Dryan sent out over 20 letters to prominent rabbis in the U.K., sharing his vision and inviting them to join him. The idea of starting a kollel, however, was considered so farfetched in 1941 that most of the rabbis never even bothered replying and a few politely declined. Only one, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, while not overly optimistic, decided to give it a try.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Not only did the kollel impact the community, but the leading rabbis that have emerged from the kollel’s beis midrash have uplifting the level of Torah study and observance throughout England and the world. The kollel has achieved decades of accomplishment and all of it is the result of the vision and initiative of a simple – though clearly special – member of the community.

Formal titles and positions of leadership are not prerequisites for heroic action. This is the enduring legacy of Pinchas.


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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Dr. Alexander & Meryl Weingarten in memory of Dr. Alvin M. Lashinsky, Avraham Moshe ben Meir Hakohen, on the occasion of his yahrzeit on the 19th of Kislev and in honor of their children, Mark, Michael, Julie, Marnie and Michelle and by the Cohen, Kraut and Silver families in memory of Elaine Bienenfeld Silver z”l and by Michael HaKohen ben Rivka for a refuah shleimah for Michael ben Rivka and by Solomon Monderer for a refuah shleimah for Leora bat Rifka and for a refuah shleimah for Yehuda Baruch Noam ben Tova Batya betoch shar cholei Yisrael