5779 – Pinchas
This past Thursday, I was out for a ride. I made it down to Pompano beach, with the plan of riding up A1A north back to Boca. But a few miles up the road, there’s a major blockade due to construction – with signs rerouting me.
I began to follow the rerouting signs onto highway 1, at which point I thought I should take out my phone and figure out which way to go.
So I stopped next to a bus stop on the side of the road, and as I’m steadying my bike, a man rides up to me and parks his bike beside my own.
He looks at me, then shows me his phone, saying that the bus is coming in 10 minutes. He has a think eastern European or slavic accent. I thanked him and explained that I wasn’t actually waiting for the bus, just getting my bearings.
He asks me what kind of bike I have, which direction I’m heading… He tells me that his name is Dan, he’s from Yugoslavia. Then he asks me what I do. I have no reason to lie to him, I tell him I’m a Rabbi.
He looks at me and then asks, with his head tilted to the side: “Are you a Jew?” At this point I’m a little nervous, but of course, I respond in the affirmative.
He has a big smile on his face. So I ask him “Are you Jewish?”
He tells me he isn’t. “But before I left Yugoslavia forty years ago, my father told me, if you’re even in trouble, find a Jew. Jews are good. They know how to help other people. Twenty years ago, I lost my job. I had no money, no one to call on, and my immigration status was in jeopardy. So a sat and I thought “What should I do?” And then I remembered my father’s advice. And I called up a Jewish immigration attorney, and he saved me. Ever time I’ve been in trouble, I find a Jew and they help me.”
He then turns to me and says: “Thank you for what you people do.”
Fixing the World
Somehow, somewhere, deep in the unconscious mind of a Yugoslavian peasant was the knowledge that Jews help people. Not just other Jews, but humanity.
In my mind, there is no greater Kiddush Hashem than the world recognizing that Yidden care; Yidden help, Yidden are there for others.
Which is why Pinchas is such an enigma.
Pinchas represents a violent response that should, that must offend our sensitivities. For a Jew to rise up, take a spear in his hand and skewer is sinner – even a public sinner is unthinkable. And yet, he does just that:
וַיַּ֗רְא פִּֽינְחָס֙ בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָ֔ר בֶּֽן־אַהֲרֹ֖ן הַכֹּהֵ֑ן וַיָּ֙קׇם֙ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָֽעֵדָ֔ה וַיִּקַּ֥ח רֹ֖מַח בְּיָדֽוֹ׃
וַ֠יָּבֹ֠א אַחַ֨ר אִֽישׁ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל אֶל־הַקֻּבָּ֗ה וַיִּדְקֹר֙ אֶת־שְׁנֵיהֶ֔ם אֵ֚ת אִ֣ישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֶת־הָאִשָּׁ֖ה אֶל־קֳבָתָ֑הּ וַתֵּֽעָצַר֙ הַמַּגֵּפָ֔ה מֵעַ֖ל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
When Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from the midst of the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the pavilion, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel.
And yet, somehow, this act is rewarded. Not simply by a lack of retribution, but eternal praise:
לָכֵ֖ן אֱמֹ֑ר הִנְנִ֨י נֹתֵ֥ן ל֛וֹ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י שָׁלֽוֹם. וְהָ֤יְתָה לּוֹ֙ וּלְזַרְע֣וֹ אַחֲרָ֔יו בְּרִ֖ית כְּהֻנַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר קִנֵּא֙ לֵֽאלֹהָ֔יו וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace: and it shall be to him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.’
The Kotzker notes that while Pinchas might indeed have done something great in that moment, in that time, it was not something that should ever be emulated. Indeed, he explains that it is in the context of Pinchas slaying Zimri that Moshe davens to Hashem to appoint a leader over the people when he leaves the world:
יִפְקֹ֣ד ה׳ אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹ֖ת לְכל־בָּשָׂ֑ר אִ֖ישׁ עַל־הָעֵדָֽה
“Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation”
But Moshe has known for quite some time that he would not enter the land. Why is he demanding a succession plan now?
The events of Pinchas deeply disturbed Moshe. Before Pinchas killed Zimri, Moshe knew that Hashem would appoint a special person, a Kadosh person to fill his shoes. And then Pinchas came along. He was filled with passion, with Kedusha, with Mesiras Nefesh; all of the qualities that one needs in a leader. But he was also zealot; a Kanai. And a Jewish leader needs to look at another person in the midst of doing the wrong thing, and not take revenge.
So Pinchas is written out of Jewish history. This grandson of Aharon, who burned with a passion for God is extinguished from Jewish leadership – because his lesson is הלכה ואין מורין כן. It’s true, but we don’t live that way.
Pinchas’ Mystical Return
But while Pinchas himself is edged out of our national narrative, Chazal see a peculiar continuation of Pinchas: פינחם הוא אליהו – Pinchas is Eliyahu. (Different Rishonim understand this concept differently. שו”ת רדב”ז חלק ו סימן ב אלפים רג)
The Targum Yonasan expresses this idea in explaining our Parsha:
בשבועא אימר ליה מן שמי האנא גזר ליה ית קיימי שלם ואעבדיניה מלאך קיים ויחי לעלם למבשרא גאולתא בסוף יומיא.
Swearing by My Name, I say to him, Behold, I decree to him My covenant of peace, and will make him an angel of the covenant, that he may ever live, to announce the Redemption at the end of the days.
Thus we must address the question: How is it that Pinchas, who acted so violently, so zealously that he is written out of Jewish history, could be in some way identified with Eliyahu HaNavi, who is to welcome the final redemption?!
The Surgery of Evil
We live in a world that is complex. Nothing we experience is black or white; no facts are untainted with opinions and agendas. It’s the world of עץ הדעת טוב ורע – it’s a mixing, a muddling, a confounding of that which is real, with that which is fake.
And there is an unnerving underlying assumption of our world: Nothing is really entirely good, or entirely bad. We say this in polite terms: “Everything in moderation.” The nutritionists will tell you that no food is “healthy or unhealthy”. The doctors will tell you “The dose makes that poison.” It’s all relative and it all depends…
It’s hard to navigate in such a world. Our relationships are incredibly vulnerable to this confusion. One moment you’re in love and the next you’re frustrated – by the same person, and sometimes for the same act! This truth lies deepest in our understandings of ourselves. Each of us is a complex web of good and evil; a cloth woven of truth and falsehood.
But imagine for a moment, that we could, with surgical precision, extract from ourselves the strands of weakness, of anger, jealousy, pettiness, frustration, lapses of control. Imagine for second that we could remove our flaws with laser accuracy. Would we not be left with only good?
The Klausenberger Rebbe explains: This was the greatness of Pinchas. While Zimri was sinning, the nation as a whole stood by confused. They didn’t know what to do or how to react. So they stood aside, in acquiescence. An entire people, immobilized by the complexity of their situation. Do we live and let live? Do we stop him? Do we endanger our lives by getting involved?
But then Pinchas barges in, and, with violent, but surgical precision, plucks out that strand of evil. His act is nothing we should emulate, but its effect was instantaneous. As if all at once, everyone woke up from their confusion and for a moment they knew that what Zimri has done was wrong, and what Pinchas had done was right.
Says the Klausenberger: Eliyahu’s job will be to announce to the world that the time for evil has ended, and the Jewish people will shed their failures and rush ahead to a world of greatness.
The Depth of Jew
Essentially, what Pinchas proved, is that the complexity of sin, failure, of עץ הדעת טוב ורע, is not inherent to who we are. Practically, in our lives, that’s a transcendent perspective. It means that we can look at each other, at our children, our spouses, at the world, as inherently good. Of course, we’re not supposed to go around hatcheting peoples faults and flaws. But proving that we could, means that we can look at each other as essentially good.
Rebbe Nachman explains (רפב):
דע, כי צריך לדון את כל אדם לכף זכות, ואפילו מי שהוא רשע גמור, צריך לחפש ולמצא בו איזה מעט טוב, שבאותו המעט אינו רשע, ועל ידי זה שמוצא בו מעט טוב
Know, you have to judge each person favorably. Even the biggest Rasha, look and find a little bit of good. For with that little bit of good, they’re not a Rasha.
This was the daily tefillah of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk:
שנראה כל אחד מעלת חברנו ולא חסרונם
That each one of us should see the greatness in each other and not their short comings.
This is the world of Geula that Eliyahu will bring. It’s why he shows up to every Bris. Eliyahu represents the capacity for a surgical removal of evil; the revelation of the inherent goodness of every Jew.
Or as Dan the Yugoslavian says in the name of his father: “Find a Jew. Jews are good. Jews help people.”
The Beis Yaakov writes that at the end of time, Hashem will show us that the correct way to read the pasuk:
וַיְצַו י״י אֱלֹהִים עַל הָאָדָם לֵאמֹר מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן אָכֹל תֹּאכֵל. וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב. וָרָע לֹא
From all the trees of the garden you should eat. And from the tree of knowledge of good. And evil, you should never eat from it.
The world of Geulah is the capacity to see that beneath the complexity and confusion, is only good. Or as David HaMelech says it:
אַ֤ךְ׀ ט֤וֹב וָחֶ֣סֶד יִ֭רְדְּפוּנִי כׇּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיָּ֑י
Only goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
Reb Mendel Futerfas related:
“Once I was imprisoned in Russia on the night of Kol Nidrei, and observed the entire Yom Kippur within the walls of my cell. For the evening and morning prayers I succeeded somehow in saying the prayers by heart.
However, I only remembered a small part of the liturgical poems of musaf with difficulty, and it happened that I remembered ‘All are true believers.’ In the middle of reciting it, I was given pause by the thought “Is it really true that ‘all are true believers’? What of the evil communist regime? And the members of the ‘Jewish section’ of the party who actively uproot Torah: should they be called ‘believers’?”
Two weeks later they transferred me to a concentration camp, and there they squeezed me into a hall, where about sixty beds were crammed in tiers on the surrounding walls.
All the criminal offenders snatched the best places, and I was pushed into a corner. I tried to hide from these hoodlums, and since it was Shabbat night, I closed my eyes and immersed myself in the Shabbat prayers. After several minutes a mustached Uzbek with a powerful physique and a scarred face approached me and asked, “You are praying now, aren’t you?” I nodded.
“You should know that I am also a Jew! This year, for the first time in my life I fasted on Yom Kippur in prison, and I even prayed! Actually I don’t know a word of Hebrew, for even my father received a communist education, and I did not see a trace of Judaism in my father’s house; however, my grandfather taught me in my childhood to say Modeh ani.
Believe me, Mendel, I fasted all day, with my lips murmuring constantly: “Modeh ani . . . modeh ani . . .’“
“This was an answer from Heaven,” concluded Reb Mendel, “to my question concerning “All are true believers.”
Hashem should help us to avoid extremism, live in a world of nuance, but know in the deepest way that every Jew is good.