Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Pinchas

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Pinchas 5758-1998

Parashat Pinchas 5758-1998

Pinchas: A Midrashic View

Rabbi Dr. Yehoshua Rabinowitz

The identification of Pinchas with Elijah, by means of the known Agaddic statement that "Pinchas is Elijah,"[1] is an attempt by some of the Sages to describe the mysterious figure of the prophet. Not only does Elijah appear and disappear for those who are worthy,[2] also his Pinchas-like traits and behavior are just as enigmatic, two mysteries remaining for every one that is solved. We shall try to obtain a glimpse into the character of Pinchas through several Midrashim of the Sages. Some of the homilies cite a verse from the Prophets or the Hagiographa (Ketuvim), and then use the phrase "this is Pinchas," to identify Pinchas with the personality or character traits which emerge from that verse, sometimes in comparison to other figures and sometimes on its own. The following homily[3] weaves together several passages from Proverbs, and using Midrashic modes of exegesis, brings testimony to his character from the mouth of God Himself:

The repute of Pinchas was greater than the wealth of Zimri, who was the head of the tribe of Simeon. What did Zimri do? It is of him that Solomon said, The wicked man is brazen-faced, and of Pinchas that he said, The upright man discerns his course (Prov. 21:29). In what way was Zimri brazen?... Moses said to him, (Prov. 21:30) No wisdom, no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord.[4] The Holy One, blessed be He, responded: I know who is prepared to take action in this matter; for what is the very next verse? (Prov. 21:31): The horse is readied for the day of battle, but victory comes from the Lord.. Rabbi Jose said, "Pinchas himself understood this derasha and applied it to himself: If a horse risks his life for the day of battle even though he may die, nevertheless he is ready to give his life for his master, how should I behave? But what shall I do, for two can overcome one, but can one overcome two?[5] While he was reasoning with himself, the plague began to rage and the Holy One, blessed be He, said (Prov. 24:10-12): 'If you showed yourself slack in time of trouble, ... if you refrained from rescuing those taken off to death, ... if you say: we know nothing of it.. I [the Almighty] testify about you, Pinchas, [that you are equal to the task] as it is said (Prov. 24:12), Surely He who fathoms hearts will discern [the truth] .' When Pinchas saw the plague, he stood and prayed, as it is said (Ps. 106:30), Pinchas stepped forth and intervened.. Immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, called to Moses and said to him, 'Come here, and I shall disclose to you who saved the seed of Abraham, as it is said (Num. 25:11), Pinchas, son of Eleazar.' Hence it is said (Prov. 22:1), Repute is preferable to great wealth."

This midrash contrasts the figure of Pinchas with two other major figures in the same story: Zimri and Moses. R. Jose and his colleagues view Scripture as being brief in certain places--such as the story in our Parasha--and providing a greater wealth of insight in other places--such as the Hagiographa. This midrash reflects the idea that the Prophets and Hagiographa are like the Oral Torah in that they shed light on obscure passages in the Five Books of Moses. The Sages undertook the task of explicating verses from Scripture, shedding light on personalities and events from the distant past, from the birth of the Jewish nation in the wilderness. Using phrases such as, "Solomon was referring to him," "Moses said," "the Holy One, blessed be He, knew," or even "Pinchas himself understood," which means what Pinchas himself was thinking, the Rabbis were able to enlarge upon the story and explain the background to God's statement in our chapter, what the Lord informed Moses through the words "Pinchas, son of Eleazar... has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me." Pinchas was ready to give his life to sanctify the Name, he did not pay respect to a Master, but prayed and saved the offspring of Abraham; therefore King Solomon could say of him, "Repute is preferable to great wealth."

The next midrash[6] is an exegetical Midrash, meaning that it deals with the interpretation of the Torah verses itself, rather than constructing a homily around a particular idea, as did the previous Midrash (which is therefore of a homiletical type). It looks into several verses of Numbers that are more enigmatic than explicit:

When Pinchas, son of Eleazar ... saw this (Num. 25:7). Did not everyone see it? For it is written (Num. 25:6), "in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community." Rather, he saw what had been done, and that called to mind a rule of halakhah: He who has relations with an Aramean woman, zealots strike at him. He left the assembly (v. 7). How so? Rather, they were discussing the issue whether or not he should be put to death. Then Pinchas left the assembly, volunteered himself, took a spear in hand, ... and zealously defended the Lord's Name, and He wrought twelve miracles for him,... When Pinchas saw that He [the Lord] wished to wipe them out, he beat them [Zimri and Cozbi] to the ground, and stood and prayed, and put an end to [the plague]. As it is said in Psalms 106:30, "Pinchas stepped forth and intervened (va-yepalel)," carrying out the law, as it is said (Ex. 21:22), "the payment being as the judge determines (bi-plilim)." As it says in Proverbs (16:14), "The king's wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man can appease it." It is like a king who was passing by a group of youngsters, and one of them cursed the king, arousing the king's wrath at them. Along came one who lived with them, and meted out punishment to the one who had cursed the king, and the king's wrath was immediately allayed. Who, similarly, allayed the wrath of the Holy One, blessed be He, so that all the Israelites were not wiped out? It was Pinchas, carrying out the saying, "but a wise man can appease it."

The Sages tell us that Pinchas saw a certain act, and immediately recalled a rule of halakhah, which he had surely learned from the Master and Prophet of Israel, who had momentarily overlooked this halakhah. The Israelites, as well, were "discussing the issue" and procrastinating, but Pinchas, "one who lived with them," came forward and volunteered and, zealously standing up for the Name, he stepped forth and intervened. So we read in the midrash: "As Scriptures say," ... "Who but Pinchas... caused the Holy One, blessed be He, to ...," "fulfilling what is said, 'but a wise man can appease it.'"

Song of Songs Rabbah[7] identifies a verse from Song of Songs, "You have captured my heart, my sister, my bride" (Song 4:9), with Pinchas: The Holy One, blessed be He, said, "You had one heart at Shittim, but you gave me two hearts.[8] You have captured my heart with one [glance] of your eyes (ibid.), refers to Pinchas, as it is said (Ps. 106:30), Pinchas stepped forth and intervened, ... It was reckoned to his merit." Presumably the Midrash means that Pinchas was one of the "eyes of the community," a leader, and as the Rabbis taught, "the Merciful One desires the heart" or the devout sincerity of a person, which is what Pinchas gave.

Ecclesiastes Rabbah,[9] in several alternatives which it presents for understanding a verse in Ecclesiastes, does not overlook Pinchas: "He who is pleasing to God escapes her (Eccles. 7:26) refers to Joseph; and he who is displeasing is caught by her (ibid.) refers to Potiphar. An alternative interpretation is that He who is pleasing refers to Pinchas, and he who is displeasing refers to Zimri." The midrash cited here is one of many that contrast figures from the Bible, by drawing parallels between diametrical opposites in Scriptures. Sometimes the Biblical text does not provide an explicit opposition, but the overall Scriptural context implies one and the Sages only formulate it concretely. This is illustrated by the following midrash:[10]

There are cases of people who commit adultery and are rewarded, while others commit adultery and lose; some steal and win, while others sand lose. For example, someone who stole and won, was Pinchas; who stole and lost, Akhan. Someone who committed adultery and lost, Zimri; who committed adultery and won, Judah, from whom issued Perez and Hezron who were destined to be the ancestors of David and the Messiah.

The following midrash[11] consists entirely of identification of biblical figures. It takes a certain text and word by word identifies the Patriarchs, some of the tribes and their offspring:

Another interpretation (for Psalms 15:2-3) : He who lives without blame is Abraham... Who has never borne reproach for his neighbor is Pinchas, who was from the tribe of Levi; Zimri, who was from the tribe of Simeon, was immediately killed because of what he had done, so there would not be reproach for Israel.

We conclude with the following midrash:[12]

Bless the Lord, O His angels (Ps. 103:20) ... for the prophets were called angels; likewise it says, asked the angel (Zech. 4:5). Rabbi Judah bar Simon said, "An angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal (Judges 2:1) is a reference to Pinchas." The Rabbis added, "From the verse, He looked like an angel of G-d, very frightening (Judges 13:6), we learn that the prophets were called angels."

We began with the homily that identifies Pinchas with "The upright man discerns his course." "G-d made men plain [upright], but they have engaged in too much reasoning" (Eccles. 7:29). Pinchas remained upright from beginning to end. Although he began by reasoning or rationalizing to himself, he quickly reached the conclusion that a swift response is required to uphold the sanctity of G-d's name. In order to save the people of Israel one must not make lengthy preparations, rather one must intervene at once. Pinchas, remembering a teaching, acted zealously and stepped forth voluntarily; then many miracles were wrought for him. He served as the eye of the community, as the "pleasing one, who "stole and won" and who "never bore reproach for his neighbor," without favoring those close to him. He is the angel of the Lord who came up from Gilgal, and it is his revelation that we await in our day, for "Pinchas is Elijah." May he not only sit under the Tree of Life, chronicling the merits of Israel, but may he realize them speedily together with the coming of the Messiah. Amen.

[1] Cf. Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 47, and R. David Luzatto on same; Yalkut Shimoni, Pinchas, 771; Sotah 13a, and Rashi on same; also Rashi on Baba Metzia 114b, s.v. Lav Kohen Mar, where he says, "this is according to the opinion that Elijah is Pinchas."

[2] Berakhot 3a, Shabbat 109b, and elsewhere.

[3] Exodus Rabbah (Vilna ed.) Parasha 33, 5, s.v. davar aher, Va-yikhu..

[4] This calls to mind the words of the Talmud, Berakhot 19b: "One who finds sha`atnez in his garment is to take it off, even in the marketplace. Why? Because 'no wisdom, no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord.' Wherever there is profanation of the Name, one pays no respect to a Master."

[5] Zimri and Cozbi.

[6] Numbers Rabbah (Vilna) 20:26; cf. Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw), Parshat Balak 21, s.v. Va-yar Pinchas.

[7] Song of Songs Rabbah (Vilna), 4, s.v. libavtini, 1(9).

[8] Meaning you had one mind to sin at Shittim, but Pinchas acted otherwise.

[9] Kohelet Rabbah (Vilna) 7, s. v. asher hi.

[10] Midrash Tanhuma (Buber), Parshat Va-Yeshev 13, s.v. va-yered Yehuda

[11] Midrash Tehillim (Buber), psalm 15, s.v. (6) davar aher.

[12] Midrash Tehillim (Buber), psalm 103, s.v. (17) barkhu Hashem.