From the Life of Pinchas

“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen, turned back My wrath from upon the Children of Israel, when he zealously avenged My vengeance among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My vengeance. Therefore, say: Behold! I give him My covenant of peace”

(Bamidbar 25:11-12)

Pinchas was promised that he would live forever (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 771). The Zohar (II, 190a) states that Pinchas returned as Eliyahu Hanavi, who ascended to Heaven in a storm. He lives until today. After his father, Elazar the Kohen Gadol, passed away, Pinchas was appointed to succeed him as Kohen Gadol (see Vayikra Rabbah 37:4). He stood at the helm of our nation during the days of the Judges. How tremendous is the reward for one mitzvah! Pinchas was rewarded with eternal life in the merit of acting zealously for Hashem’s sake.

We find that Pinchas served as the Kohen Gadol for a long period of time. He still served in that capacity in the days of Yiftach, one of the last Judges before the era of the Kings. It was in the days of Yiftach that Pinchas was demoted from his position, vanishing from the scene of history, until the days of Achav. Then he returned in the guise of Eliyahu Hanavi, who eventually ascended to Heaven in a whirlwind, before the eyes of his disciple and successor, Elisha.

 The Reason Why Pinchas Lost His Status as Kohen Gadol

During the days of the Judge, Yiftach, Am Yisrael lived under the threat of Amon. Yiftach was the one designated to fight this nation, since he was the leader. Before leaving to war, he promised that if he returned victorious, he would offer as a sacrifice the first thing that emerged from his house. The first one to greet him upon his return was his daughter (see Shoftim 11:3-34).

Yiftach was in a quandary. He knew it is forbidden to offer a human sacrifice (not that he wanted to). On the other hand, he wanted to keep his promise. He felt he had been victorious only in the merit of this vow. The talmidei chachamim suggested he might be able to nullify his vow by approaching the Torah Sage of the time, Pinchas the Kohen Gadol. Yiftach felt that appearing before the Kohen Gadol was an affront to his honor as Judge of the nation. He requested that Pinchas appear before him. But Pinchas likewise felt this was an insult to his stature. He therefore refused to come to Yiftach.

Yiftach saw that Pinchas was not forthcoming, yet he felt that his vow was binding. He took water and food and placed it in a tower, where he locked up his daughter. It was there that she breathed her last. Commentaries state that Yiftach’s act was similar to offering her as a sacrifice. Hashem was angered that Yiftach refused to humble himself by going to Pinchas to nullify his vow. Yiftach was punished in a most bizarre manner. From that day on, his limbs became detached from his body, one at a time, until he expired (Bereishit Rabbah 60:3). This was measure for measure for not employing his limbs in going to seek Pinchas. Pinchas also aroused Hashem’s anger by not coming toward Yiftach to nullify his vow. He could have rescued the pitiful girl. Hashem removed the mantle of High Priesthood from Pinchas (see Kohelet Rabbah 10:16), thereby confiscating his ruach hakodesh.

Pinchas remained in this state until Hashem appointed him, once again, to lead Bnei Yisrael. This time, he returned in the form of Eliyahu. It was during the days of Achav, and idol worship was rampant in the nation. Izevel, wife of Achav, had all the prophets put to death. Finally, Eliyahu gathered the nation at Har HaCarmel, proving to them once and for all, that Hashem is the G-d of the world (Melachim I, 18:19-39).

Subsequently, Eliyahu Hanavi complained to Hashem about the low spiritual level of Am Yisrael, stating (ibid. 19:10), “I have acted with great zeal for Hashem, G-d of Legions, for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant; they have razed your altars and have killed Your prophets by the sword, so [that] I alone have remained, and they now seek to take my life.” Hashem was angered with Eliyahu Hanavi for speaking derogatorily about Bnei Yisrael. Instead of praying on their behalf and asking for mercy upon them, he leveled accusations against them. Hashem told him he would not be a prophet any longer, and sent him to anoint Elisha in his stead (ibid. 19:16). After anointing Elisha and teaching him how to lead the people, Eliyahu was swept up in a whirlwind, before the shocked eyes of Elisha (see Melachim II, 2:11-12). Eliyahu was done with his mission on Earth and was thus taken up to Heaven alive.

 An Additional Punishment

The Midrash (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 28) relates that Eliyahu received an additional penalty for speaking lashon hara about his people: he was designated as the Angel of the brit. Eliyahu must appear at every brit that Bnei Yisrael make. For this reason, we prepare a special chair for him.

What was the punishment in this? Isn’t it a zechut to participate in the simchah of a brit milah? The Ben Ish Chai explains that when Eliyahu descends to attend a brit, Hashem is teaching Torah on High. He does not stop the shiur in order to wait for Eliyahu’s return. Eliyahu thereby misses some points in the study from the mouth of Hashem. Herein lies his punishment.

 The Zealousness of Pinchas in Shittim and of Eliyahu in the days of Achav

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Melachim 217) recounts that Hashem was angered that Eliyahu spoke negatively about Bnei Yisrael. He told Eliyahu, “You state that you acted with great zeal for My sake. You already acted zealously for Me in Shittim, by killing Zimri ben Salu.”

Hashem had a grievance toward Eliyahu. He explained it to him: “Your zealous act today is unlike that in Shittim. There, while risking your life for My honor, you prayed that with your act, Zimri’s sin would be atoned. You prayed for Me to have mercy on Zimri. Yet, now, you act zealously against Bnei Yisrael, without asking for My mercy upon them.”

Zimri, indeed, received forgiveness through his death. The Ohr Hachaim writes (Bamidbar 25:14) that Zimri is referred to as “the Israelite man.” With his death, he merited atonement. He rests in peace with the rest of the Jewish nation.

The correct way to spell the name פנחס is without the letter י'. When a man with this name wishes to divorce his wife, the Beit Din is most precise in spelling his name correctly. If his name is spelled wrong, the get is invalid. But when the Torah relates the incident of Pinchas’ zealousness for Hashem’s honor, his name is spelled with an additional letter י'. Chazal (Zohar II, 215b) explain that Hashem added this letter from His own Name י-ה-ו-ה to prove that Pinchas acted solely for His sake.

Removing the letter י' from the Holy Name י-ה-ו-ה leaves the word ה-ו-ה, which has the gematria of sixteen, the numerical equivalent of the Name חב"ו. This is an acronym of the words of the pasuk in Iyov (20:15), “ח*יל ~ב*לע ~ו*יקיאהו~ – He devoured wealth, but will disgorge it.” When a person sins with wasted seed, rachmana litzlan, the kelippah devours this seed. After he has done teshuvah, the kelippah disgorges the seed, returning it to the person. This is all by the power of the Holy Name חב"ו.

By gaining the additional letterי' , Pinchas was a partner in the rest of Hashem’s Name, so to speak, numerically equivalent to sixteen, alluding to the Name חב"ו. With his act of murdering Zimri, Pinchas rectified the sin with this Holy Name, left over when he extracted the י' from Hashem’s Name י-ה-ו-ה.

Hashem’s charge against Eliyahu was that he did not attempt to rectify Bnei Yisrael’s sin during the days of Achav as he had in the form of Pinchas, when Bnei Yisrael sinned in Shittim. This indicated a flaw in his zealousness in the later days. Only when Pinchas rectified the sin of Zimri did he demonstrate pure altruistic intentions, unadulterated with the desire for honor or other ulterior motives. Therefore, Pinchas merited the additional letter י' from the Name of Hashem. He acted solely out of love for Hashem.

Hashem told Eliyahu that because he merely killed the false prophets but failed to correct their sins, he did not display the same level of zealousness for Hashem’s Name as previously. His refusal to approach Yiftach to annul his vow, ostensibly out of respect for Hashem’s honor, was not considered zealousness at all. It was a manifestation of protecting his own glory. The sorry results proved how fatal his mistake was.

How easy it is to fool oneself into believing he is acting with courage and zeal, claiming he is taking up for Hashem’s honor, when in reality, this is not the case. Pinchas, the leader of the generation, erred twice, thinking he was acting l’shem Shamayim. Hashem rebuked him for this and punished him. A person must always weigh his actions, examining whether or not they are for the sake of Heaven.

In Summary

Pinchas received the reward of living eternally in the merit of his zealousness in killing Zimri l’shem Shamayim. The Zohar states that Pinchas returned as Eliyahu, who lives forever.

Yiftach vowed that if he returned victorious from war, he would offer as a sacrifice to Hashem the first thing that emerged from his house. His daughter came out first to greet him. Yiftach waited for Pinchas to nullify his vow. But the prophet refused to come. Yiftach locked his daughter in a tower until her dying day. Hashem punished Yiftach most severely. His limbs fell from his body, until he expired. Hashem punished Pinchas by confiscating the High Priesthood from him and pronouncing him a nomad.

Pinchas re-emerged as Eliyahu in the days of Achav. He complained to Hashem about the low spiritual level of the nation. As a result of this lashon hara, Eliyahu was demoted from being a prophet and was instructed to appoint Elisha in his place.

Eliyahu was also punished by having to be present at every brit. In this manner, he misses learning Torah with Hashem during that time.

Pinchas displayed altruistic motives in his zealousness in Shittim. While killing Zimri, he prayed for atonement. But his zealousness during the days of Achav did not come with any request for the peoples’ pardon.

The Holy Name חב"ו has a gematria of sixteen, just like the remaining letters ה-ו-ה from Hashem’s Name after removing the letter י', which was added to the name of Pinchas. This Holy Name rectifies the sin of wasted seed. When Pinchas killed Zimri, he employed this Name with the letters ה-ו-ה, to atone for Zimri’s sin.


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