Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. II, p. 344ff, 609ff;
Vol. IV, p. 1070ff; Vol. XVIII, p. 318ff

Can Priesthood be a Reward?

This week’s Torah reading begins:1Pinchas, the son of Elazar… turned My wrath away from the children of Israel by zealously taking up My cause among them…. Therefore,… I have granted him a covenant of peace. He and his descendants will possess an eternal covenant of priesthood, because he zealously acted on behalf of his G‑d.”

The question arises: Pinchas’ deed the execution of Zimri as described in the conclusion of last week’s Torah reading2 involved self-sacrifice and courage. Certainly it is worthy of praise and reward. Nevertheless, it is curious that Pinchas was granted “a covenant of eternal priesthood,” as a reward. For priesthood cannot be attained through man’s endeavors; it is not at all dependent on spiritual accomplishments.

As Rashi comments,3 just as one cannot change morning into evening, one cannot alter the definition of priesthood. Since Pinchas was not a priest beforehand, how could his conduct, however virtuous, earn him that distinction?

Unbounded Service Evokes an Unbounded Response

The resolution of this question revolves on the understanding of the trait for which the Torah praises Pinchas: zealousness. Why does the Torah describe Pinchas with this term? Firstly, Pinchas risked his life. Although Zimri was supported by his entire tribe, and they could have easily killed Pinchas,4 Pinchas did not consider the danger to himself. What concerned him was the spiritual danger facing the Jewish people, and he was willing to risk his life to eliminate the threat.

There was, moreover, a deeper dimension to Pinchas’ commitment. Our Sages relate5 that when a Jewish man is cohabitating with a non-Jewish woman, “the zealous have [the right6 to] strike him.” Nevertheless, “although this is the law, a ruling is not delivered.” This means that if a person were to ask a Jewish court if he should kill a person who commits such an act, the court should not instruct him to do so.

Thus not only did Pinchas risk his life, he did so even when there was no obligation. If he had let the situation pass, nobody would have criticized him. On the contrary, he had to take the initiative himself, and aroused criticism by taking the step he did. Our Sages state7 that he acted against the sages’ desires, and that had not G‑d praised him as quoted above, they would have placed him under a ban of ostracism.8

What motivated Pinchas? He wanted to “turn [G‑d’s] wrath away from the children of Israel.” He understood what had to be done to accomplish this goal, and was willing to take any risks involved.

This is zealousness: putting one’s own welfare both spiritual9 and material to one side, and making an unbounded commitment to carry out G‑d’s will. When a person makes a genuine commitment of this nature, the inner G‑dly spark which every one of us possesses is given expression.

Similarly, such an approach evokes an unbounded response from G‑d. For when man goes beyond his natural limits in his Divine service, G‑d grants him rewards that are not confined by nature. For this reason, Pinchas could be granted the status of a priest.

Tempering Zealousness with Love

Our Sages identify Pinchas with the prophet Eliyahu.10 Eliyahu’s Divine service was also characterized by zealousness, as it is written:11 “I have been very zealous for the sake of G‑d, the L-rd of Hosts.” When making this statement, however, Eliyahu contrasted his own conduct with that of the Jewish people at large, whom he criticized for “forsaking [G‑d’s] covenant.”

G‑d refused to accept these words of criticism. He appointed Eliyahu as “the angel of the covenant”12 and charged him with attending the circumcisions of the Jewish people for all time to come, so that he would attest to their faithful adherence to G‑d’s covenant.13

G‑d taught Eliyahu that his zealousness must be tempered with ahavas Yisrael, love for every member of our people, and that he must endeavor to seek out our people’s virtues. These traits became such an integral part of Eliyahu’s personal mission that when the prophet Malachi describes Eliyahu’s return to announce the coming of the Redemption, he states14 that Eliyahu will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers.” And when the Rambam describes15 Eliyahu’s mission, he states that “he will come solely to establish peace.” To emphasize this direction from the outset, G‑d tells Pinchas that in reward for his zealousness, he is being given “a covenant of peace.”

Taking the Initiative

These two thrusts zealousness and peace are of fundamental relevance at present. Many of our people live estranged from their Jewish roots, yet our national future depends on zealous commitment to maintaining our heritage. For it is the inner conviction that stems from the spark of G‑dliness we all possess that makes an impression on others. Intellectual argument cannot penetrate another person’s heart. A heart opens to a heart; it is zealous commitment, tempered by warmth and loving outreach, which will spur others to discover the Jewish spark within themselves.16

There is a further dimension to Pinchas’ zealousness. Pinchas was not the leader of the Jewish people; Moshe, Elazar, and the elders occupied higher positions of authority. Yet when the need arouse, Pinchas did not wait for the leaders’ guidance, but seized the initiative himself.

The same applies with regard to every individual today, for every one of us has a unique contribution to make. With the confidence that comes from the truth of one’s inner conviction, we must all take the initiative and spread good and peace.

These efforts will hasten the coming of the time when Eliyahu identified with Pinchas will return. And then, “the voice of the herald will announce good tidings”17 the coming of Mashiach, and the redemption of our people and of all mankind.