The end of last week’s Torah portion tells of the heroic act of Pinchas, who was zealous for G‑d’s honor when some of the Jewish men sinned with the daughters of Moab. This week’s parshah opens with G‑d’s blessing of Pinchas: “[He] turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, . . . therefore, I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him, and his descendants after him, a pact of priesthood for all time.”

But what about Moses? He turned away G‑d’s anger from the Jewish people numerous times during the forty-year trek in the desert, and yet received no reward for it. On the contrary, when he asked for his sons to replace him after his death, G‑d told him to appoint Joshua instead. Why do Pinchas and his offspring receive such an incredible reward for a one-time zealous act?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, explained that the answer is found in the words of one translation, that Pinchas “avenged My vengeance amongst them.” There is a fundamental difference between the service of Moses and Pinchas. Moses sought to mitigate G‑d’s anger against Israel through prayer. In contrast, Pinchas’s action took place not in the supernal realms, but rather “below,” in the physical world. Moses was top-down; Pinchas operated from the bottom up.

This distinction is also reflected in the forms of the two leaders’ self-sacrifice. After the incident of the golden calf, Moses told G‑d that if He did not forgive the Jewish people, He should erase Moses’ name from the Torah. Moses’ was a very bold act, for sure, but he placed only his soul and spirituality on the line. Pinchas, on the other hand, engaged his entire self; his physical being was risked.

Two Divergent Roads

Moses and Pinchas symbolize two paths in fulfilling our divinely given duties. The overall goal of our existence is to purify the material world and transform it into a vessel for holiness. This can be accomplished in one of two manners. In the manner of Moses, who transmitted the Torah, we can bring from above the intensity of G‑d’s light and spirit, and lay it upon the world.

Or we can emulate Pinchas. This approach is one of self-transformation, repentance and return—a spiritual cleaning that works from the inside out. This refines the coarse physicality and makes it receptive to G‑d’s light.

As holy and lofty as Moses’ service is, it is deficient. The holiness from above does not bond, unify and totally fuse with physical reality, because it comes to the scene as an outsider. After the great experience of Mount Sinai with the giving of the Torah, it took only forty days for the children of Israel to sin. Moses’ approach has no permanence or longevity; consequently, he did not merit to have his sons inherit his position.

Pinchas’s approach effects the material world on its level. From within, the material reality is purified and made into a receptacle for the divine light.

We need, therefore, to be cautious in our own divine tasks. If we focus exclusively on our spiritual needs—prayer and Torah study—at the expense of our physical, the benefit may not last long. One gains eternity only by combining what concerns the soul with that which is “outside” the spiritual, thereby purifying the physical world to make it hospitable to the divine.