Parashat Pinchas opens with the continuation of the story of Pinchas, which began at the end of the preceding parashah, Balak. As we pointed out previously, the story of Pinchas is itself part of the larger story of the Jewish people’s encounter with the Midianite-Moabite alliance on the eve of their entry into the Land of Israel. After describing Pinchas’ reward for arresting both the sudden moral decline of the Jewish people and the Divine plague that resulted from it, the Torah proceeds to describe the census occasioned by the decimation wrought by the plague. This census serves as a prologue to the subsequent discussion of issues pertinent to the conquest of the Promised Land, for the land is to be divided up according to the results of the census. After the census, the Torah discusses:

  • the laws of inheritance,
  • the passage of leadership from Moses to Joshua, and
  • the daily offerings and additional festive offerings offered in the Temple.

All three of these topics are aspects of the people’s preparation for entering the Promised Land. The laws of inheritance hinge mainly on land estates, the passage of leadership is necessary to ensure that the people will conduct their conquest of the land with the proper spiritual guidance, and, as we will see, the purpose of the daily and festive offerings is to keep the people mindful of God’s presence in the world even while they are involved in the mundane tasks of life they will have to engage in when they settle in their land.

Now, we know that a parashah’s name applies to its entire content, not just its opening. The question, then, is: what do the census, the laws of inheritance, the passage of leadership, and the daily and festive offerings have to do with Pinchas?

Furthermore, why is the story of Pinchas split between the end of the preceding parashah and the beginning of this one? It would seemingly have been more logical to finish off the story (which only takes a few verses, after all) at the end of parashat Balak and begin the next parashah with the census. True, the census was necessitated by the events of the Pinchas story, but it looks forward toward the eventual conquest of the Holy Land and thus goes together with the subsequent subject matter.

To understand this, let us recall that in the preceding parashah, the Torah describes the story of Balak in detail because there are lessons in it that are essential for the Jews to learn before they enter the Land of Israel. (Specifically, these were the messianic prophecies and the idea that the messianic imperative must be applied to even the lowest aspects of reality.) Similarly, the Torah describes the second act of the drama of Moab-Midian, the story of Pinchas, to convey a lesson that is essential for the Jews to learn before they enter the Land of Israel—and for us to learn in order to enter our personal, small-scale “promised lands,” as well as to hasten the final entry into the Promised Land with the advent of the Messiah.

What is this lesson?

Ironically, and perhaps disturbingly at first, it is that our devotion to God must not be limited by the Torah.

When Pinchas slew Zimri and Cozbi, he consulted first with Moses. Moses told him that while the Torah allows someone overcome by zealousness to slay someone in the act of relations with a non-Jewish woman,1 this is “a law that is not taught,” i.e., no one can be instructed to do this.2 In fact, the sages disapprove of such an act.3 Furthermore, the offender is allowed to kill the zealot in self-defense.4 In other words, by slaying Zimri, Pinchas was doing something not required of him by the Torah, disapproved of by the sages—and was also risking his own life.

Yet, by acting out of zeal and ignoring the voice of caution, Pinchas put an end to the sinful behavior of the Jewish people, stayed the plague that was decimating them, and earned the priesthood for himself and his progeny. Clearly, he was vindicated.

To fully understand the implications of this, we need to take a closer look at the three-way relationship between, God, the Torah, and the Jewish people.

The Torah, we know, is God’s instruction book for the world at large and the Jewish people in particular. It teaches us how to relate to the world and accomplish our purpose here.

The Torah conveys these lessons to us via our intellect. We read the Torah, understand what it says, and follow it. If we do not understand parts of it, we continue to study and seek instruction from its teachers until we do understand it. Yet there is certainly more to our relationship with God than what we can filter through our intellect. As we have noted previously, there is a spiritual dimension to the relationship between God and Israel, as transmitted through the Torah, that transcends, bypasses, and is altogether beyond the realm of intellect. The inner core of the Jew is bound supra-rationally to God, and if the implications of this bond do not always seem rational, this need not surprise or faze us.

In other words, the Torah speaks to our intellect, but at the same time, it opens windows to the supra-intellectual dimension of our relationship with God. Its demands on us are outwardly rational but subliminally supra-rational.

Ostensibly, the Torah demands that we sacrifice our lives only in certain cases. If someone threatens to kill us unless we commit adultery, idolatry, or murder, we are required to give up our lives rather than transgress these sins. In addition, if the ruling regime has declared an all-out war on the Torah and has forbidden its practices, we are required to risk our lives for any aspect of its observance. In all other cases, however, we are not required to sacrifice our lives, and must in fact transgress the Torah’s laws in order to stay alive. When the Torah demands that we sacrifice our lives, is because in these cases it makes sense: self-sacrifice is, in these cases, rational.

Therefore, as long as the Jew is functioning on a rational level, he will sacrifice his life only in these circumstances. In all other cases, he knows the Torah prefers that he transgress its laws rather than lay down his life, and therefore, this is what he will do.

When, however, a Jew feels so strongly connected to God that reason and rationales no longer impress him, when his consciousness has been overtaken by his essential, intrinsic, supra-rational identification with God, he will not care whether the Torah requires him to sacrifice his life in any particular instance. His only concern will be for God: he functions solely on the adrenaline of his passion for God’s causes; even his own life is of no consequence. If, in such a situation, the individual feels that God’s agenda in the world is somehow threatened, there is no question as to what he will do. This intensity of God-consciousness puts a person into constant readiness for self-sacrifice.

The goal of life is to make this world (and ourselves) into a home for God, with God’s reality suffusing every corner of consciousness. Thus, this readiness for self-sacrifice foreshadows the intensity of Divine consciousness that will characterize the messianic future. More than that: self-sacrifice is what will bring about the messianic future, for in order to achieve the heightened Divine consciousness that is the goal of creation, we must break out of restrictive rationality and open ourselves up to the world of Divine union that exists beyond the realm of reason.

This, then, is why the lesson of Pinchas was so crucial to the Jewish people as they were about to enter the Land of Israel. This is the first time that the Torah has indicated that it is necessary to go beyond its dictates. Having heard about the messianic prophecies of Balaam and set their sights on the true purpose of their imminent conquest, the Jewish people must now realize that this goal can be attained only if they unsheathe their true, inner identification with God and His objectives and not limit themselves to the letter of the law.

The same applies to each of us in our own personal lives. Whenever we are about to reach a goal we have been striving for, we must first silence the inner voices of negativism and opposition. But in addition, we must be aware that now is not the time for setting limits to our dedication. The test of our devotion to our ideals is our willingness to give our all for what we believe in.

Again, the same applies to us all nowadays, as we stand on the threshold of the final Redemption and entry into the Land of Israel. What is required of us now is readiness to put everything else aside and marshal the best and greatest of what we have in order to see history through to its messianic destiny.

And just as with Pinchas, God will assist those who exhibit self-sacrifice in the face of adversity; He will bless their efforts with success. History has shown that those who do not bow to the threats of Judaism’s enemies ultimately prevail. This is why the story of Pinchas is split between parashat Balak and parashat Pinchas, leaving his self-sacrifice in the previous parashah and focusing now on its reward: to teach us that self-sacrifice succeeds and will carry us through to the ultimate Redemption.5


In Kabbalistic terminology, self-sacrifice expresses the yechidah (“single one”), the highest of the five levels of the soul. Yechidah is the interface between the soul and God, in which the individual is aware of himself only as a “part of God”—paradoxically both conscious of himself (as a part of God) and not (i.e., totally dissolved in God’s reality). The four lower levels of the soul—nefesh, ruach, neshamah, and chayah—express themselves through the soul’s “powers” or faculties: action, emotion, intellect, and will, respectively. Yechidah, in contrast, is too sublime to be expressed in any one soul-power, but instead encompasses them all. Generally, we are not conscious of this aspect of the soul, but in the future this level will become the dominant aspect of our consciousness. This phenomenon will reflect the overall change in creation that will occur then: the Divine “light” that is now too intense to be revealed within creation will become revealed within created reality. Just as the four levels of the soul will be infused with the consciousness of yechidah, the four spiritual worlds of Atzilut, Beriah, Yetzirah, and Asiyah will be infused with the transcendent Divine “light.”

On a deeper level, the dynamic between abstinence and permissiveness is relevant to the mental states a person travels through in his creative life. The force of the initial experience of creative insight, chochmah, puts him into a state of self-transcendence, in which his ego is temporarily suspended (bitul). In the subsequent stage of creative development, binah, the new insight is evaluated in terms of and integrated into the existing mental structure. This is an opposite experience, in which the individual is quite aware of himself and is seeking to understand the new insight in light of what he already knows.

When a person is swept up in the Divine transcendence of chochmah, he does not need to worry about self-restraint. As long as the self-effacement of this experience lingers, his ego will not seek to derail him into self-indulgence. Once he gets involved—as he must—in the process of binah, analyzing and evaluating the new insight in terms of his established mental perspective on life, he must invoke the protective power of abstinence; he must be wary of his ego’s propensity to overemphasize his self-interests.

It is imperative that a person descend out of his transcendent state of inspiration, in order to integrate his new vision into his life. Otherwise, his insight will escape him and disappear. Thus, the process of binah is necessary for growth and development. Nonetheless, in order to keep the development of the idea true to the initial insight that spawned it, the individual must periodically relive something of the experience of chochmah. If he can do this, his binah will not lead him astray. The way in which reliving the insight of chochmah protects the development of binah is akin to the way in which a qualified person annuls the vows of someone who otherwise requires them, raising him to the level where they are no longer necessary.6