This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Pinchas (5760)
It was Tuesday afternoon and the Janitor was the only one walking around in the large modern Orthodox Synagogue when Joe Forbes, a non-observant Jew, entered and asked for the Rabbi’s study.
The janitor showed him the way, ushered him in, the Rabbi shook his hand, and warmly asked him to be seated. Joe sat down and got right to the point; “Rabbi, my nam is Forbes. I’m willing to give a nice $50,000 dollar donation to your beautiful Synagogue here if you make me into a Cohen.”
The Rabbi looked incredulously at the man seated before him and sadly shook his head “I’m sorry Mr…. Ehh what is your name again? Ahh yes … Mr. Forbes! Mr. Forbes, I’m afraid that it is out of the question. This is an Orthodox Synagogue here and …”
“I’ll make it $100 thousand,” said Forbes emphatically.”
“No No!” Said the Rabbi shaking his head solemnly, “We really need the money, but we cannot go against the Torah. The Torah is the will of G-d, Mr. Forbes, only if you were born a Cohen can you …
“Rabbi … One Million Dollars is yours if you do the job. If not, well … I can always go across the street to the Reform Temple, I’m sure they will be more than glad to help me.”
The Rabbi loosened his collar; it was suddenly very warm in the room and getting hard to breathe. “Give me some time to think, I must consult the books. I’ll, I’ll call you tomorrow.” He stammered, wiping his brow, “Just write down your name address and phone number on this piece of paper.
And, oh yes, of course the name of your bank and I’ll see what we can do.” As soon as Forbes walked out of the room and closed the door, the Rabbi immediately picked up the phone and called the bank. Sure enough, they verified it … Forbes was a multimillionaire!
“Hello, may I speak to Mr. Forbes? Ahh Hello Mr. Forbes! Well, we have good news; I looked in the ‘books’ and found that we can help you! …. Yes, we are very happy also. Please be here tomorrow at nine in the morning sharp and we’ll take care of it. Don’t worry we took care of everything, we even called a photographer.”
The next day the Rabbi and his board of directors pompously presented the beaming Mr. Forbes with a carefully written parchment stating that he is “Heretofore an Honorary Cohen with the rights and privileges thereby etc. etc.” amidst the flashing lights of the camera.
They even hung a golden medallion hanging on a red ribbon, around his neck engraved with the word “COHEN”. Mr. Forbes was wiping the tears of joy from his reddened eyes as he gratefully was pumping everyone’s hand, repeating, “Thank you Rabbi, Thank you!! When things calmed down however, the Rabbi turned to Forbes and asked him,” One thing interests me, however, Mr. Forbes. Please don’t take offence but … after all, one million dollars is a lot of money and, well … excuse me, but … you aren’t even religious! So why is it so important to you to be a Cohen?!”
“Listen Rabbi,” Forbes looked him in the eye and explained with the utmost seriousness, “My father was a Cohen and my Grandfather was a Cohen … so why shouldn’t I be a Cohen?!”
This is the lesson we can learn from Pinchas: We are much more than we think we are.
Last week’s Torah Portion (Balak) ended with a very bizarre story: A virtual nobody by the name of Pinchas, publicly speared one of the leaders of the Jewish people, Zimri the President of the Tribe of Shimon! He then prceeded to run around the entire camp of Israel holding his dying victim aloft at the end of his spear to advertise his deed! That’s how the portion ends.
This week’s Portion begins with G-d informing us that Pinchas’s reward for this gruesome act was that he and his offspring got a ‘Peace Pact’ and became Cohanim (Priests) forever.
This is all very difficult to understand! First of all, the law is, that it is impossible to be a Cohen unless born one. A non-Jew can convert and become a Jew, but a non-Cohen is stuck. So how could Pinchas become a Cohen if he never was one?
(The Lubavitch Rebbe once told a simple man, who happened to be a Cohen; “I with all these books” he gestured to the hundreds of books in the bookcases on the walls surrounding him, “can never reach your level. You are a Cohen.” The man began weeping with emotion.)
Second, what is so great about becoming a Cohen? Why didn’t G-d make him the leader of a tribe, (there was a vacancy in the tribe of Shimon.) And finally, what is the Torah trying to tell us here? How could such a bloody deed bring a ‘Peace Pact’?
First let us understand why Pinchas murdered Zimri.
Zimri was trying to destroy the Jewish identity by publicly taking the Holiness out of the sexual act. The novelty of Judaism is not that it is the most valid of religions. In fact, Judaism is in no way like any other religion, as we say every day;
“Ain K’ailokainu” ‘There is nothing like OUR G-d’. (And the Jews are not like any people as Bilam noted (23:9) “They are alone and not one of the Nations”.)
The novelty of Judaism is that its goal is to ‘Unify G-d’; to make even the PHYSICAL, HOLY. (That is why the prayer ‘Shma’ is so central because it is the source of this commandment to make G-d ‘One’).
Therefore the sexual act is of ultimate Holiness because, besides being the source of all physical life, of the family and of society, it itself is the most physical of acts. (see Ramban Vayikra 19:2)
So when Zimri publicly took the Midionite woman for his own purposes he was knowingly encouraging the destruction of Judaism.
Now, the Torah tells us that everyone present, including Moshe, knew that
according to the Torah Zimri must be stopped, but they froze for a moment.
Pinchas’s greatness was that he realized that the entire world is hanging on a delicate spiritual balance, one deed can tilt the scales for good or the opposite (see Rambam Hil. Tshuva 3:4) and that every instant of Zimri’s sin was a potential catastrophe for the entire universe and he had to act fast.
So he risked his life, jumped from obscurity into immediate action and ended up saving all of Israel (and the entire world). He gave the world new life His reward is that he became a totally NEW person. He became a Cohen and, according to the Zohar and other sources, the soul of Eliahu the prophet (who would be born over 600 years later) also entered him.
These two rewards; becoming a Cohen and getting Eliyhu’s soul are fitting to his deeds.
It is explained in the writings of Chabad (Lekuti Torah Korach 55:3) that although every descendent of Avraham has the power to bless (see B’reshis 12:2) nevertheless blessings can be delayed.
A Cohen is special because he has the power to bring blessings into action quickly, an appropriate reward for Pinchas’s quick action. And Eliahu, like Pinchas, was self-sacrificing (Mal.1, 19:10) for G-d’s holy covenant (That is why he is present at every circumcision).
This is all very important today. Today, as then, the Jewish people are in desperate shape. The belief in the Creator and His commandments, in the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their special place in creation is confused and asleep.
Each of us must take an example from Pinchas and do something to save the situation. We can no longer wait for the Holy people or the leaders to do it. Like Pinchas, each of us must do all in his/her ability to tilt the world to the side of good … and even one more deed may be enough.
Rashi (Balak 25:6) tells us that the reason that everyone except Pinchas froze with confusion was in order to give him the chance to earn what was due to him. In other words G-d was waiting for Pinchas’s self sacrifice.
The Lubavitch Rebbe informed us that G-d is waiting for our self-sacrifice today as well, this very moment and every moment:
“Do everything in your power to bring Moshiach”.
It is in our power! And as soon as a person just begins, G-d gives infinite assistance; new powers to do things we never thought possible. [For instance Chabad Chassidim have put Tefillin on TENS OF THOUSANDS of complete strangers, that I never dreamed would agree. Jews that never did a Mitzvah in their lives and never would if someone would not have asked them.]
WE CAN change this world into a blessing; before we know it we will see that Eliyahu has already arrived and announced the arrival of the Moshiach, and the world will be transformed into a paradise of good and true Peace. With …Moshiach NOW!!
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