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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Pinchas: Zealot-Prelate or Priest of Peace?

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on July 6, 2023)
Topics: Pinchas, Sefer Bamidbar, Torah

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Originally published August 2016

This week’s parsha Pinchas has much to say about zealotry and peace, and the messages remain worthy of examination today. Consider the following: A religious zealot witnesses a person flagrantly violating religious standards. Acting in the name of God, she picks up the nearest available weapon and violently slays the sinner. If this happened today—and it does—we would be outraged and call for the act to be condemned. The Torah, however, praises it:

Pinchas … has turned My anger away from the people of Israel, when he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the people of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore, say, Behold I give him My covenant of peace … a covenant for eternal priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the Children of Israel (Bamidbar, 25:11–13).

Is religious zealotry an ideal to be emulated? While the Gemara recognizes such actions were praised after the fact in the Torah, it states that halakha, as a normative system, would never give prior warrant to such violence. Rather, from a halakhic point of view, Pinchas was actually a “pursuer” who could have been killed to prevent him from taking Zimri’s life (Sanhedrin 82a). License can never be given to violence.

One can detect a similar concern in the blessing God gives to Pinchas: “Behold, I give him My covenant of peace.” While this act of zealotry may have been praiseworthy in this unique set of circumstances, the blessing for eternity, the guiding principle for life, must be of peace, not violence. One must hold strong to zeal for truth and for God, but to realize it in the real world—the world of human beings and imperfection—one must work in ways of peace.

Pinchas goes on to embody peace. In Sefer Yehoshua, the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half the tribe of Menashe return to the Transjordan and build a large altar. Believing they have abandoned God, the other Israelites prepare to wage war. Pinchas, however, leads a delegation that brokers peace and averts war (Yehoshua, 22). He has moved beyond his zealous, uncompromising youth to become an elder statesman pursuing diplomacy, compromise, and peace. The Talmud records Rav Ashi’s opinion Pinchas did not become a kohen until he brokered this peace (Zevachim 101b); his “covenant of priesthood” could only be realized when he realized his “covenant of peace.”

It is instructive to contrast Pinchas and Eliyahu. The Midrash states “Pinchas is Eliyahu.” Indeed, both were “zealous for God.” In response to rampant idolatry, Eliyahu decreed there would be no rain. After three years of famine, in a great public demonstration, he slew the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al by the edge of the sword. He ran to hide in a cave, and God appeared:

… behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, What are you doing here, Eliyahu? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away. And God said, Go out, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice (Kings I, 19: 9–12).

Eliyahu has indeed been “zealous for the Lord,” and many have died by sword and famine. But God has a lesson: God is not about violence but the small still voice, the voice that speaks to a person’s heart, that will bring about peace. But Eliyahu cannot comprehend this message:

And, behold, there came a voice to him, and said, What are you doing here, Eliyahu? And he said, I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword; and I am the only one left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And the Lord said to him, Go, return on your way … and Elisha … shall you anoint to be prophet in your place (Kings I, 19: 13–16).

Eliyahu is so committed to his absolute sense of truth, he cannot understand the time for zealotry has passed. For the people to reconcile with God, a small voice, that of peace, is needed. If he cannot understand, then he can no longer lead, and Elisha the prophet must take his place.

Pinchas is Eliyahu, but develops and matures. Eliyahu, on the other hand, is only the younger Pinchas. Eliyahu is taken heavenward in a whirlwind; he is not a person of this world. His zealotry for truth and for God could not be reconciled with frailties of human beings. He will never become the older Pinchas, at least not in this world, but will become the ultimate emissary of peace in the future world: “Behold, I will send you Eliyahu the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord; And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse” (Malakhi, 3:23). He will be the one to bring about peace to save the world from the harsh judgment that God, in God’s attribute of truth, would demand.

In the end, the Sages debate how much Eliyahu’s final mission of peace will differ from his earlier mission of truth and zealotry. The following discussion in the Mishnah is regarding those whose personal status prevented them from marrying within the Jewish people:

R. Yehoshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher [heard it] from his teacher, as a halakha [given] to Moshe from Sinai, that Eliyahu will not come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near, but to push away those brought near by force and to bring near those pushed away by force …

R. Yehudah says: To bring near, but not to push away …

The Sages say neither to push away nor to bring near, but to make peace in the world, for it is said, “Behold I send to you Eliyahu the prophet, etc., and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers” (Mishna Eduyot 8:7).

R. Yehoshua is saying that, even in the future, Eliyahu will not compromise truth. Peace will be possible only as a byproduct of truth. Eliyahu’s mission will be to rectify falsehood, to ensure a person’s status is true to reality. R. Yehudah believes truth will serve the interests of peace in the end, but will only be called on to bring close those who have been distanced. The Sages reject both positions, holding these principles will never be reconciled for Eliyahu. He will only be able to devote himself to peace by allowing the work of truth to be done by others.

Eliyahu was not of this world, but Pinchas was. He was given God’s covenant of peace and realized true religious leadership in his lifetime, leadership that brought unflinching devotion to God and truth to serving the people and actualized this truth in ways of peace.

Shabbat Shalom!