Learning Parshat Pinchas today with my Sixth Graders, a pair of insights by the students impressed me for their ingenuity and for their surprisingly adroit sensitivity to human nature and the human experience.
Parshat Pinchas relates the reward that Hashem gave Pinchas in exchange for the zealotry he displayed in killing the “intermarrying” (I told you, it’s 6th Grade) Jewish man and Moabite woman:
במדבר פרק כה
(יב) לָכֵן אֱמֹר הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת בְּרִיתִי שָׁלוֹם: (יג) וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Two presents. The first, Brit Shalom. Rashi explains this as …
רש”י במדבר פרק כה
כאדם המחזיק טובה וחנות למי שעושה עמו טובה; אף כאן, פירש לו הקב”ה שלומותיו:
… “a Thank-You Card,” as one of my students put it. Very nice. And the other gift? Brit Kehunat Olam. The Eternal Covenant of Priesthood. ECP. But as one of the students astutely noticed, he already had that gift! He was, after all, “Ben Elazar, Ben Aharon Hakohen.” A sock full of coal, perhaps?
Rashi doesn’t think so:
רש”י במדבר פרק כה
שאף על פי שכבר נתנה כהונה לזרעו של אהרן, לא נתנה אלא לאהרן, ולבניו שנמשחו עמו, ולתולדותיהם שיולידו אחר המשחתן – אבל פינחס, שנולד קודם לכן, ולא נמשח, לא בא לכלל כהונה עד כאן. וכן שנינו בזבחים (קא ב) לא נתכהן פינחס עד שהרגו לזמרי:
In other words, Pinchas had been left out on a technicality. The Priestly Inauguration earlier in the book included Aharon, Aharon’s living sons, and Aharon’s unborn descendants until the end of time – but not already born grandson Pinchas. For this reason, Pinchas could now be “inaugurated” newly, finally, as a Kohen.
Many of my students found this explanation wanting. Why create such a loophole to begin with? And if, for whatever reason, Pinchas was not worthy of being a Kohen to begin with, why change his status now? Why the sudden change of heart by Hashem?
One student had the insight that perhaps Hashem had left Pinchas out of the Kehuna all this time (forty years!) in order to test his enduring faith in the abiding equity of Hashem’s commands. (Maybe I have embellished this Sixth Grader’s verbiage. Maybe.) What seemed unfair for so long finally became understandable: Pinchas had been left out of the Kehuna for just this very moment! When Pinchas realized what the reticence had been all along, years of frustration at having missed out on the Kehuna for what was apparently such a silly loophole washed away. How often do we miss the coach bus sent to us by Hashem because we are so frustrated by having just missed the city bus? In our displeasure for particular, sometimes difficult rules, we miss the beauty of other ones all around us. We can be upset at the coming of so many days of Yom Tov and never really capture the beauty of our family sitting all around and enjoying each others’ company. How many of us, in Pinchas’s position, might have missed the chance to become a Kohen simply out of frustration for the fact that we were not one already?
Another student made a somewhat different point: Perhaps Pinchas had been left out of the Kehuna – abandoned, to a certain degree, by Hashem – in order to gauge Pinchas’s reaction to this “snub” over time. Remarkably, while Pinchas could have used that very abandonment to “snub” Hashem in return, he instead acted deliberately on Hashem’s behalf when given the opportunity, turning that very slight on its head: you may abandon me, Hashem, but I will never abandon You. When Pinchas displayed the genuineness and altruism of looking past his personal rejection in order to show that he would never in turn reject Hashem, he also earned himself a right to Kehuna itself; now it was a Kehuna of genuine love of Hashem – אהבה שאינה תלויה בדבר.
Both of these are very beautiful explanations. I think the more common explanation is one based on a famous Rambam at the end of Hilchot Shemitah V’Yovel:
רמב”ם הלכות שמיטה ויובל פרק יג הלכה יג
ולא שבט לוי בלבד, אלא כל איש ואיש מכל באי העולם, אשר נדבה רוחו אותו … הרי זה נתקדש קדש קדשים, ויהיה ה’ חלקו ונחלתו לעולם ולעולמי עולמים, ויזכה לו בעולם הזה דבר המספיק לו, כמו שזכה לכהנים ללוים …
Based on this Rambam, we could say that Pinchas may never have had the first Aliyah (Avraham did, I suppose – err, sorry) or received Terumah, but he was a Kohen in the deeper, more meaningful sense of the term: he was a member of the President’s Club; he had a backstage VIP pass to shake hands with Mick Jagger. Only it was Mick Jagger who would never wash his hands again, even if no Levi would ever wash Pinchas’s.
But anyway, I’ll take either of my students’ explanations over the more common one. As they say, מתלמידי יותר מכולם – from my students I have learned the most (or, perhaps, from my students I have learned more than any of them learned) (Avot).