The character of the Priest

Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the Priest, has turned My wrath away from the People of Israel, in that he was very zealous for My sake among them, so that I did not consume the People of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say: “I give to him My covenant of peace.”1

The combination of “in that he was very zealous for My sake” and “I give to him My covenant of peace” seems strange. Why should Pinchas receive a “covenant of peace” simply for killing two people?

In the Talmud and midrashim, there are many descriptions of the Priests’ character, and generally they fall into two groups. One view is that if you see a Priest who displays impudence, it is a sign that he is not really a Priest.2 Pashĥur, a Priest in Jeremiah’s time, had four thousand slaves, all of whom became mixed up in the priesthood. In light of this, every bad-tempered Priest, who does not display proper character, is apparently a descendant of those slaves and therefore does not only lose his credibility as a Priest, but is not even considered a Jew.

The characterization of the Priest as a man of love and kindness appears in the Mishna as well, where it says, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near to the Torah.”3 This is not a new idea; it is expressed ­frequently in Tanach. For example, we read, “He walked with Me in peace and uprightness and turned many away from iniquity. For the Priest’s lips keep knowledge, and people seek the law at his mouth; for he is a messenger of the Lord of Hosts.”4

However, the Talmud also states that the reason for intricately “folding” a bill of divorce is that there were hot-tempered Priests who, in their anger, would impulsively divorce their wives.5 This irascibility is not a defect in their priesthood but is rather part of their nature, and therefore it is precisely a bad-tempered Priest who is authentic.

Zealousness of this type can be found in the Torah as well, in connection with Levi in the Shechem incident, where we find an expression that evokes the events of Parshat Pinchas, though the situations are different. In his fury, Levi asks, “Should our sister be treated like a prostitute?”6 Indeed, it can be said that Levi and Pinchas displayed identical character traits.

The similarity between the two does not end there. This quality of hot-headedness is ascribed to the Levites following the sin of the Golden Calf. Moses needed help in implementing what amounted to a minor massacre, so he called out, “Whoever is for G‑d, join me!”7 In response, all the Levites rallied to him. They obey Moses’ order with great zealousness, for which the Torah praises them: “Your Urim and Thumim belong to Your pious one…who said of his father and mother, ‘I do not see them’; neither did he acknowledge his brothers nor know his own children. For they kept Your word and guarded Your covenant.”8 Somewhat astoundingly, the plain meaning of this is that the tribe of Levi is praised for having killed people. To be sure, it was all done out of righteous zeal and for the sake of Heaven, but the fact remains that they are praised for a murderous rampage.

Indeed, in Jacob’s blessings to his sons, Levi – together with his brother Simeon – is remembered for his hot temper, irascibility, and zealotry.

The Zohar distinguishes between two groups within the tribe of Levi: the Levite and the Priest.9 The Priest corresponds to the attribute of love and mercy (chessed), while the Levite corresponds to the attribute of strength and justice (gevurah). However, if one looks into this, what emerges is not so simple. After all, the primary service of the Priests is butchery. The Priest’s task is to slaughter the korbanot, receive the blood in a service vessel, convey it to the Altar and sprinkle it. He lives constantly in the midst of blood. The Levites, by contrast, sing songs, open the gates, and serve as the honor guard in the Temple. On the blessing given to the tribe of Levi, “Smash the loins of those who rise up against him, so that his enemies rise no more,”10 Rashi explains that this is a prophecy about the Hasmoneans, who consisted of Priests of the tribe of Levi. The Hasmoneans would arise, take Israel’s defense into their own hands, and lead a war. Thus, we see that the Priest’s character clearly contains an aspect of making war and zealously championing G‑d’s cause.

The nature of the priesthood, then, is characterized by contradiction. On the one hand, there is zealous passion, bloodshed, and war; and on the other hand, there is something very different – a character that is entirely one of blessing. What, then, is the true character of the Priest?

We find a similar phenomenon in connection with Elijah. There are many stories about Elijah, and in all of them Elijah appears as a loving figure. When someone seeks assistance or is in trouble, Elijah always comes to his aid. There are hundreds of these stories, from the time of the Talmud until our own time, about Elijah’s sudden appearance, always as a loving figure.

However, if we look at the depiction of Elijah in Tanach, it is clear that he is not a figure of love and mercy. First of all, Elijah brings famine and death to the world by declaring that there will be no more dew or rain “except by my word.”11 Elijah’s conduct with the prophets of Baal also does not seem like that of a kind, loving person: All told, he personally slaughters four hundred of them. That is Elijah the man. When someone comes to arrest him,12 Elijah consumes him and his fifty men in fire. When someone else arrives, Elijah burns him, too, along with another fifty men. When Obadiah, who according to the Talmud was himself a prophet, meets Elijah, he shakes with fear,13 and many other accounts show that Elijah was surrounded with an aura of real fright.

When Elijah comes to Mount Sinai, and G‑d asks him, “Why are you here, Elijah?”14 He says, “I have been very zealous.” This is the essence of Elijah, as the Zohar states, “Pinchas is Elijah.”15

On the other hand, when Elijah is referred to after his death, his character appears quite different: “Behold, I will send you the Prophet Elijah.”16 Elijah, who personally smote the land by the sword in his lifetime, now shall “turn the heart of the parents to the children, and the heart of the children to their parents.”17 It is not the terrifying Elijah, but this Elijah whom we call upon when we are in the midst of trouble, praying that he will come and offer help to great and small alike.

The name of G‑d is Zealous

This leads us to the question of the role of zealousness (kin’a) in ­religious experience. What does the Torah mean when it says that Pinchas “was very zealous for My sake?”18

There are two types of kin’a that appear in the Torah, which are often connected and intertwined. The first is jealousy, when one wants to be like that person in some way. The second type of kin’a is zealousness. When one is zealous for someone’s sake, it means that one bears some strong emotion toward that person. For example, in the case of the sota’s husband we read that “a spirit of jealousy (kin’a) came over him, and he expressed feelings of jealousy (kinei) about his wife.”19 This kin’a about one’s wife can be interpreted not only as “jealousy” but as “zealousness.” This zealousness is rooted not in hatred but in love; it comes from the attribute of chessed, not from the attribute of gevurah.

Hatred can appear in various forms, some of which are aggressive, but its essence is indifference toward the one hated.

The Talmud defines a bearer of hatred not as someone who curses his fellow man and yells at him, but as “anyone who, out of enmity, has not spoken to his fellow man for three days.”20 Take, for example, Joseph’s brothers, who “could not speak peaceably to him.”21 When one cannot speak to someone, this is considered strong hatred toward him. In a certain sense – and this is true on the kabbalistic level as well – stern judgment, hatred, and fear are all one attribute, whose basis is breaking off contact with a person. If the attempt to break off contact fails, the next step is to use direct antagonism and violence. One who hates another person does not want to see him, but sometimes in order to reach this goal he must confront the very person he wants to avoid.

Zealousness for someone stems from the attribute of love. The attribute of love has several levels. There is the level of affection, where one is happy to have a certain thing, but he does not long for it or seek it out. When it goes beyond this – when there is an intense longing and desire when that thing is lacking – that is a sign of a higher degree of love. One who loves something, whether it is a beverage, money, or anything else, feels a void when it is not beside him.

This idea is true in spiritual matters as well. One type of person stands in the synagogue on Rosh HaShana or Yom Kippur and prays because everyone else is praying. But there is a higher level: “I remember You upon my bed, and think of You in the night-watches.”22 The plain meaning of the verse describes one who wakes up at night, if only to turn over to the other side, and immediately longs for G‑d’s presence. To be sure, few people are on this level, but this is a level for which to strive.

There is an even higher spiritual level: the level of kin’a. One who is truly zealous not only loves something but cannot bear the fact that others can possess it as well. This desire for exclusiveness can sometimes reach a state where one cannot love two things at once.

The essence of kin’a is described in the verse, “Love is fierce as death, jealousy (kin’a) strong as Sheol.”23 The verse is not speaking disparagingly of zealousness, but in its praise. When love is fierce as death, when kin’a is strong as Sheol, it is like a great fire. What underlies kin’a is that one cannot accept a relationship that is not exclusive, and that the moment the relationship is no longer unique, it becomes extremely distressing. “I have loved you, says G‑d;”24 He loves us so much that if we give our love to another, He will not forgive us. Hence, G‑d is zealous – “the name of G‑d is Zealous (kana).”25 “You alone have I known of all the families of the earth”26 – this is a choice of love.

Interestingly, almost every halachic opinion agrees that worshiping G‑d in tandem with another deity is prohibited only for Jews. “Except to G‑d alone”27 is a formula that applies only to Jews. For non-Jews, if a person believes in G‑d and in another deity as well, he is not considered an idolater, since he nevertheless believes in G‑d. For the People of Israel, however, “I have loved you, says G‑d” – you are beloved and unique to Me, inseparably and intimately connected with Me. G‑d is jealous when there is someone else.

My covenant was with him

When Pinchas – “in that he was very zealous for My sake” – kills Zimri, his act stems from the aspect of “My covenant of peace”: His zealousness stems from the attribute of love, not from the attribute of stern ­judgment, and this explains the dual identity of the Priests. When it comes to lost love, many people comfort themselves, saying that “there are plenty of fish in the sea.” But one can only say this if one’s love is not unique and
irreplaceable. For Pinchas, however, his zealous attitude toward his relation­ship with G‑d dictated his actions.

Kin’a – the feeling of total commitment and exclusiveness – is rooted in love, not in hatred. In his prophecy to the Priests, Malachi describes the covenant that was given to the tribe of Levi: “My covenant was with him, of life and peace.” 28 It is no accident that Malachi’s description is based on the verse from this Parshah, “I give to him My covenant of peace.”29 The attribute of love, from which the Priest stems, assumes various aspects, forms, and modes, and there are times when it cannot restrain itself. Hence, the same Elijah who says, “I have been very zealous” also reconciles parents with their children and children with their parents.

This observation also explains why the “messenger of the covenant,” who is present at every brit milah, is Elijah and not – as one might have expected – Abraham. Elijah is the messenger of the covenant because he is characterized by total commitment. Brit milah, which signifies our unique relationship with G‑d, is based on this same element of commitment, on the complete communion of the two sides. Just like in the case of the Priests, there is simultaneously both blood and love. Brit milah is indeed a covenant by blood, but not the blood of hatred; like every covenant, it is an expression of total commitment and love.