What’s Priestly about Pinchas?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Joshua Skootsky

In Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the Kohen, is given the Covenant of Peace by God, and the Covenant of the Eternal Priesthood. Why give this to the man who just killed two people?

The “Covenant of Peace,” some explain, relates to how some of the tribal leaders wanted to avenge the death of Zimri, the tribal leader of Shimon.

But, this does not explain why Pinchas should have become more closely associated with the Israelite priesthood. Why does Pinchas get the Eternal Priesthood? How do his actions relate to the Priesthood, so that it makes sense to “promote” him in some way? What is the precise relationship between Pinchas’ action and Jewish Priests that make his actions reflect some Jewish Priestly value?

Consider this scenario:

All of Israel is involved in a tragic, shocking, and violent dispute. Tribal political leaders openly challenge the authority of chosen religious leaders of the Israeli nation. A Priest rises, takes extraordinary action, and a plague comes to an end.

Is this Parshat Pinchas?

It’s also what happens in Parshat Korach, which, chronologically, takes place about 38 years before Parshat Pinchas.

In Bemidbar 17:11, Aharon is commanded by Moshe, “Take the fire-pan and put on it fire from upon the Altar, and place in it incense.”

וַיִּקַּ֨ח אַהֲרֹ֜ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר׀ דִּבֶּ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיָּ֙רָץ֙ אֶל־תּ֣וֹך הַקָּהָ֔ל וְהִנֵּ֛ה הֵחֵ֥ל הַנֶּ֖גֶף בָּעָ֑ם וַיִּתֵּן֙ אֶֽת־הַקְּטֹ֔רֶת וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־הָעָֽם׃

וַיַּעֲמֹ֥ד בֵּֽין־הַמֵּתִ֖ים וּבֵ֣ין הַֽחַיִּ֑ים וַתֵּעָצַ֖ר הַמַּגֵּפָֽה׃

“And Aharon took, as Moshe commanded, and ran to the middle of the community, and behold, the plague had already begun amidst the people, and he put the incense in it, and atoned on behalf of the people.

And he stood, between the dead and the living, and the plague was restrained.”

(Bemidbar 17:12-13)

The same literary language of restraining the plague is used to describe Pinchas’ actions.

וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

And he went after the man of Israel into the chamber, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was restrained from the children of Israel. (Bemidbar 25:8)

Therefore, the outcome of Pinchas’ actions, of a Priest taking dramatic action to save the entire people from a mysterious plague, fits into this model of the ideal Jewish Priest, Aharon the Priest, Pinchas’ own grandfather.

There is an opinion in the Gemara (Zevachim 101b), which Rashi quotes here in Parshat Pinchas, that Pinchas wasn’t a Kohen until he received the Priesthood retroactively. Originally, the Priesthood was only given to Aharon and his sons, and all of their future progeny. Pinchas, being already born, missed the train on the Priesthood, when it was first inaugurated during the first and second years of the Jews in the Desert. Through his actions, however, this personal exclusion was overcome through special divine fiat.

However, this opinion is that of R’ Elazar, quoting R’ Chanina. Implicitly, in the Gemara, the opinion of the silent majority of Rabbis is not like this. Furthermore, Rav Ashi takes the opinion that Pinchas only became a Kohen when he made peace between the Tribes at the end of Sefer Yehoshua, Chapter 22. Tosafot in Zevachim understand that Rav Ashi cannot be taken literally, but rather, citing Divrei haYamim, prove that the promise of the Priesthood was fulfilled by making the children of Pinchas the Kohanim Gedolim. In support of this position, Tosafot cites the Sifrei, which lists hundreds of Kohanim Gedolim during the First and Second Temple periods, all descendents of Pinchas. It seems also, in my opinion, that Rashi on the Gemara understands Rav Ashi like Tosafot, which is in contradiction to his comments to Parshat Pinchas.

Therefore, according to both the anonymous silent majority, and Rav Ashi, Pinchas did not become a Kohen in Parshat Pinchas – he simply received a blessing for him and his descendents that they would serve as the Kohen Gadol.

But why? I’ve given some of the literary evidence for how Pinchas’ actions demonstrated that he was emulating the decisive leadership of his grandfather, the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, Aharon, who represented the archetypal high Priest. Since Elazar, Aharon’s son, is Pinchas’ father, and the designated replacement of Aharon after he died, Pinchas is continuing in a family tradition of Priesthood, and demonstrating intergenerational readiness to “take the reigns” of the complex social role of High Priest.

Joshua Skootsky (SBM 2012, 2015) was a Senior Fellow of the CMTL.

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