Fearing Israel’s Divine protection, Moav and Midian followed Bilaam’s advice. They sent their women to entice the Hebrew tribes toward sexually promiscuous and idolatrous behavior that would betray Israel’s national values and sever our connection to the Kadosh Barukh Hu. The women were successful, primarily with the tribe of Shimon, and a plague broke out in the Hebrew encampment that ultimately claimed 24,000 lives.
The foreign women did not merely succeed in promoting immoral behavior within Israel but also in spreading seductive ideas that legitimized human weaknesses and challenged the Torah objective of strengthening man to be in control of his own desires. An ideological conflict arose between those enticed by a worldview focused on the wants of the individual and those primarily concerned with the moral and spiritual health of the Hebrew collective. When Shimon’s tribal chief Zimri son of Salu attempted to challenge Moshe by publicly fornicating with the Midianite King Tzur’s daughter Kozbi, Pinḥas son of Elazar killed Zimri and Kozbi in a zealous act that ended the plague and saved Israel from further harm.
“HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: Pinḥas son of Elazar son of Aharon HaKohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged My vengeance among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My Brit Shalom (covenant of peace/completeness). And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal kehuna (priesthood), because he took vengeance for his G-D, and he atoned for the Children of Israel.” (BAMIDBAR 25:10-13)
Rashi teaches that until this time, only Aharon and his sons had been elevated to the kehuna, and any future male offspring born to Aharon’s line would beKohanim from birth. Pinḥas, who had already been living at the time of the anointment, was not included in the elevation of his family until his zealous act.
A true Rodef Shalom – pursuer of peace/completeness – is one who identifies the obstacles to HaShem’s Ideal in our world and works to remove them in order to bring history closer to its Divine goal. Pinḥas was awarded the Brit Shalom not for surrendering to evil but for challenging and overcoming it. And when theKadosh Barukh Hu then commanded Moshe to “harass the Midianites and smite them” (BAMIDBAR 25:17), Moshe dispatched Pinḥas specifically (BAMIDBAR 31:6) to complete the task he had begun by leading Israel’s holy war of vengeance against Midian.
Pinḥas received more than elevation to the kehuna for his zealous deed. He was also awarded everlasting life and a central, albeit often behind-the-scenes, role in the story of Israel as it unfolds throughout history.
“My covenant was with him, life and peace; I gave these to him for the sake of the fear with which he feared Me, for he was in awe of My Name.” (MALAKHI 2:5)
Pinḥas continued to appear as Israel’s Kohen Gadol and a prominent national leader throughout the generations. Following the conquest of Eretz Yisrael under Yehoshua’s leadership, Pinḥas prevented a civil war between the tribes east and west of the Jordan River (YEHOSHUA 22:13-34). Just as he had made peace between Israel and the Kadosh Barukh Hu, he also achieved peace between the Hebrew tribes.
But over two hundred years later, a significant event occurred in Pinḥas’s life that appears to have diminished his role. The tragic incident surrounding Yiftaḥ’s vow and the fate of his daughter (SHOFTIM 11:30-31, 34-40) was partially attributed to Pinḥas’s unwillingness to show honor to Yiftaḥ. As the Kohel Gadol, he could have annulled Yiftaḥ’s vow, but would not diminish his own position by approaching a less-than-perfect national leader who he felt should come to him.
“Was not Pinḥas the Kohel Gadol around to overturn the vow? Yes, but Pinḥas said: ‘He needs me. Why should I go to him?’ And Yiftaḥ also said: ‘I am the leader of Israel. Why should I go to Pinḥas?’ And between the two of them, the girl was lost. This is why Pinḥas was punished, and his Holy Spirit and gift of prophecy taken from him. As the verse in DIVREI HAYAMIM I (9:20) states: ‘Hashem had been with him.’” (Bereishit Rabbah 60:3)
For the next two centuries, Pinḥas seems completely absent from the major national events surrounding Shmuel, Shaul, David and Shlomo. He played no role in the splitting of the Hebrew Kingdom into two or in the subsequent conflicts that erupted between the rival kings. But then, during the reign of the powerful Israeli King Aḥav, we are introduced to the zealous prophet Eliyahu, who challenged Aḥav and declared a drought on the country. Our Sages teach that Eliyahu is Pinḥas.
“Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish teaches that Pinḥas is Eliyahu. Hashem said to Pinḥas: ‘You have placed peace between Israel and Myself in this world, and so in the future, you will also be the one to place peace between Myself and My children, as is written: Behold, I am sending you Eliyah the Prophet… And he will turn back [to G-D] the hearts of fathers with sons and the hearts of sons with their fathers…’ (MALAKHI 3:23-24).” (Yalkut Shimoni Pinḥas 771)
Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 47 teaches even more explicitly that “G-D changed the name of Pinḥas to be that of Eliyahu of the Gilad.”
During the three-year drought in the time of Aḥav, HaShem sent Eliyahu to live in the home of a widow in Tzidon. When the widow’s son fell ill, “until there was no more breath left in him” (MELAKHIM I 17:17), Eliyahu intervened with tefillot that miraculously restored the boy to life.
Through saving the young boy’s life, Eliyahu rectified his earlier transgression of neglecting to save Yiftaḥ’s daughter. And, after killing the idolatrous priests and subsequently ending the drought, he rectified his transgression of not showing honor to Yiftaḥ by running before the chariot of Aḥav.
“The hand of HaShem was upon Eliyahu, and he girded his loins and ran before Aḥav until the approach to Yizrael.” (MELAKHIM I 18:46)
Rashi teaches on this verse that by running before the chariot of Aḥav, Eliyahu was showing honor to the office of Israel’s king. Although Eliyahu was the most vocal and active opponent of Aḥav’s policies, he nevertheless recognized the king as the leader of Am Yisrael and showed honor to the position by running before the Aḥav’s chariot.
But when Queen Eezevel discovered that Eliyahu had slain the priests of her deity by the sword, she became determined to apprehend and kill the zealous prophet. Feeling that even his triumphs had been futile, Eliyahu escaped to Sinai and implored the Kadosh Barukh Hu to relieve him of his mission.
“I have acted with great zeal for HaShem, G-D of legions, for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant; they have razed Your alters and have killed Your prophets by the sword, so I alone have remained, and they now seek to take my soul.” (MELAKHIM I 19:10)
HaShem responded by not only instructing the navi to anoint Ḥazael ruler of Aram and Yehu king of Israel, but also to anoint Elisha as his own successor as Israel’s leading prophet. According to Rashi, Eliyahu being relieved of his national role was a consequence for his transgression of criticizing the Nation of Israel. While a navi must often rebuke the Children of Israel, such criticism must be done while remaining part of the national collective. Although clearly driven by a deep love and concern for his people and its mission, Eliyahu showed no understanding for, or identification with, the nation on its actual level. He sternly demanded ideal behavior yet displayed no ability to effectively communicate with the generation. It was clear that Israel required a new leading navi and Pinḥas/Eliyahu required new opportunities for rectification.
For accusing Israel of breaking the national covenant with HaShem (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:6), Eliyahu is said to be present at every Brit Milah in order to bear witness to Israel’s commitment to that covenant (Zohar Lekh Lekha I 93a, Vayigash I 209b).
The role of Pinḥas/Eliyahu continued clandestinely from that point, through revealing hidden secrets of our Torah, encouraging tshuva and inspiring practical efforts to bring about Israel’s redemption.
“Behold, I am sending you Eliyah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of HaShem. And he will turn back [to G-D] the hearts of fathers with sons and the hearts of sons with their fathers…’” (MALAKHI 3:23-24)
When revolting against the Seleucid-Greek Empire, the Hasmonean patriarch Matityahu claimed direct lineage from Pinḥas HaKohen and cited him as an example for his sons and followers to emulate in their war. Jerusalem’s anti-Roman Zealot faction, led by Elazar son of Shimon, took its name from the inspirational figure of Pinḥas, who – according to scholars of the period (Martin Hengel, William Farmer, David Goodblatt) – was considered in many circles to be one of the “great patriarchs” of Israel at that time. And despite no ancient texts thus far confirming this assumption, some believe Eliyahu to have personally participated in both the Hasmonean and Zealot Revolts.
What is known, however, is that the anti-Roman agitator, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yoḥai, learned the hidden secrets of Israel’s Torah from Eliyahu while hiding from the empire in a cave for thirteen years (Shabbat 33b). Rabbi Shimon was a leading student of Rabbi Akiva, who had been the spiritual leader of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Following the failure of that war, the Romans outlawed the Torah, publicly executed our Sages (including Akiva), destroyed what remained of Israel’s national framework and sold surviving Hebrew fighters to become slaves and gladiators in Europe.
Rabbi Rabbi Moshe Ḥaim Lutzatto teaches in Adir BaMarom that the entire purpose of Rabbi Shimon remaining in the cave for thirteen years was to bring down the revelation of Eliyahu that would be necessary to sustain Israel in exile until our eventual redemption. This powerful Torah remained hidden for nearly two thousand years, passed down by the giants from generation to generation, providing them the necessary Emunah to guide Israel in exile. But upon the Jewish people’s return home to Eretz Yisrael and the liberation of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, this more holistic and dramatic mission-oriented Torah became accessible to the Hebrew masses throughout the Land of Israel. This is the Torah of the generation of redemption – one that encourages active participation in history and empowers the Jewish people with the zeal to fulfill our mission of leading the world to a state of Shalom and revealing HaShem’s Oneness to all humankind.
With love of Israel,