Weekly Cycle

Monday, July 11, 2011

Words in the Desert: Earning One's Place and the Torah Portion of Pinchas


This week's Torah portion begins with the description of the great reward given to Pinchas for his dramatic act of killing the prince of the tribe of Shimon and the Midianite princess with whom he was openly having relations. In doing so, he stopped the plague that had engulfed the Jewish people. The plague had resulted also from the worshipping of the Midianite idol known as Baal Peor. The reward that Pinchas receives is nothing less than Kehunah, the priesthood.

There is, however, somewhat of mystery to the reward given. One would think that Pinchas, son of Elazar, the Kohen Gadol, would already be considered a Kohen. Rashi explains:

10. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 11. Phinehas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the kohen 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.  12. Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace. 13. It shall 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." 

RASHI:  an eternal covenant of kehunah: Although the kehunah had already been given to Aaron’s descendants, it had been given only to Aaron and his sons who were anointed with him, and to their children whom they would beget after their anointment. Phinehas, however, who was born before that and had never been anointed, had not been included in the kehunah until now. And so, we learn in [Tractate] Zevachim [101b],“Phinehas was not made a kohen until he killed Zimri.”

Why is it that Aaron's sons, as well as future generations, received the priesthood automatically, while Pinchas had to earn it?

We know that in spirituality, certain positions and even character traits are inherited. Judaism itself is something inherited from our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Those that wish to join our people (converts), must earn that right through what is often a long and cumbersome process.

The Torah states that the priesthood was given to Yocheved for her bravery in saving the Jewish newborn babies and ignoring Pharaoh's orders. This reward materialized with Aharon, her eldest son, who showed great initiative in meeting his brother Moshe and being an essential part of the redemption process. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, Aharon himself embodied the ideals of the covenant of peace: He "loves peace and pursues peace, loves the creations and brings them closer to the Torah."

Why then was Pinchas left out? One can certainly assume that he had already inherited the same qualities (from Yocheved and Aharon) that Elazar and the other Kohanim had inherited.

Perhaps the answer is that Hashem wanted to give Pinchas an additional reward and connection to the Kehunah. To earn something, as opposed to getting it as an inheritance, is certainly a lot more special. Yes, the qualities were there all along. However, because Pinchas was able to specifically do something to become a Kohen, it was that much more special.

The same is true regarding converts, as well as our final redemption. Yes, converts have the qualities necessary to become Jewish all along (their souls too were at Sinai), but when they become Jewish through their own efforts, it's that much more special. Yes, Hashem has the ability to redeem us at any moment, but when we put in our own efforts, and share in its coming into being, we will value it that much more. And so will He.  


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