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Home » Pinchas

Pinchas: A Living Incarnation

Submitted by on June 8, 2012 – 9:33 pmNo Comment | 27,739 views

Act of Courage

Shortly before our ancestors crossed the Jordan into Israel they were approached lewdly by Midyanite women, who used their charms not only to seduce the Jewish men, but also to bait them to idol worship. So pervasive did this unholy alliance become that Zimri, a prince in the tribe of Shimon, fornicated in public in front of Moses; a challenge not only to Moses, but to G-d.

Pinchas, grandson of Aaron the High Priest, would not tolerate this desecration. He drew his sword and thrust it cleanly through Zimri and his Midyanite partner. This was a dangerous act; the masses that had gathered to watch Zimri could easily have fallen upon Pinchas. But Pinchas was not deterred. He risked his life to defend the honor of G-d. The sheer audacity of the act and the pure dedication that it evinced atoned for the sin of the Jews and saved them from Divine punishment. (1)

Curious Words

In reward for his courageous act G-d intoned, “Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron the [High] Priest, has turned my anger from the children of Israel. . . Therefore, say, I hereby give him My covenant of peace. It was for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of priesthood, because he was zealous for his God and atoned for the children of Israel.” (2)

This verse presents a number of difficulties. First, why does the Torah use the past tense, saying that the eternal covenant “was for him and for his descendants after him” when it should have used a present or future tense? Second, most people are introduced in the Torah as the son or daughter of their father, why is Pinchas’ lineage traced back to Aaron, his grandfather?

Since we are on the subject of Aaron’s descendants we may as well ask another question. In the next chapter, when Aaron’s children are enumerated, Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s elder, but deceased sons, are mentioned. (3) Then, in the very next verse, the Torah describes the circumstances of their passing, which is curious on two counts. First, we are already familiar with this story, we read about it in the book of Leviticus. Second, since they have indeed passed away, why are their names still mentioned?

Self Sacrifice

To answer these questions we must first return to the circumstances of Nadab and Abihu’s passing. Aaron’s two elder sons were tapped for the priesthood; after their father they were granted the greatest access to the sanctuary. But theirs were pure and sacred souls; they loved G-d with a burning passion, their tender hearts smoldering with a desire for G-d.

When they heard that only the High Priest would be permitted to enter the Holy of Holies they could not restrain themselves. Though at least one of them was slated to succeed their father upon his passing, they could not wait that long. They yearned and pined for a glimpse, even a fleeting one, of G-d.

They grabbed a pan of coals and a plate of incense and burst into the Holy of Holies. They were rewarded with a glimpse of the Divine, but because they had entered unbidden, they were punished. Two lines of flame escaped the burning coals and entered their nostrils; snuffing out their young lives.

Moses comforted Aaron and told him that his sons perished in holiness. In terms of their love for G-d they exceeded even you and me, said Moses. Indeed, the mystics teach us, Nadab and Abihu understood that they would not survive their visit to the Holy of Holies, but they preferred to die after catching a glimpse of G-d than live for decades without it. (4)

Back to Life

Both Pinchas and his uncles, Nadab and Abihu, risked their lives; Pinchas survived, his uncles did not. The difference between them is that Pinchas took his risk to defend a Torah law, namely the prohibition against promiscuity, whereas his uncles risked their lives in contravention of a Torah’s law, namely the prohibition to enter the Holy of Holies.

The mystics tell us that Nadab and Abihu’s souls, tender and sacred though they were, ascended before G-d, but found no rest. They had been tapped to become priests and one of them was even slated to be high priest. Not only did they not fulfill their task, they did not even leave children behind to succeed them. This was a terrible predicament for them and they suffered for several decades.

Enter their nephew Pinchas, who, like his uncles, risked his life for G-d, but in line with Torah law, not against it. When he performed this act his soul was impregnated by theirs and they coalesced; Nadab and Abihu became a part of Pinchas. (5)

Words Make Sense

We now return to our three questions. The Torah speaks of Pinchas’s priesthood in the past tense rather than the future because his was not a new priesthood bestowed by G-d, but the existing priesthood of his uncles; impregnated into him. The moment he had performed his courageous act, his soul merged with theirs, which immediately rendered him a priest. By the time G-d informed Moses of this it was an established fact; one that had occurred several moments earlier. It was not a new decree to be worded in a present or future tense. It was a description of a past event.

It also makes sense that Pinchas is introduced as son of Elazar, son of Aaron. The Torah is not simply telling us about his grandfather; the Torah is actually informing us that as of that moment Pinchas was Aaron’s son. When his uncles coalesced with him, Aaron became his father. Pinchas was no longer only his father’s son; part of him was now his grandfather’s son.
Of course we also understand why the Torah lists Nadab and Abihu and then describes their passing. This listing is brought in the Torah after the story of Pinchas’ heroism. By this time Nadab and Abihu’s souls, who, the Torah reminds us, risked their life to enter the Holy of Holies unbidden, had impregnated in Pinchas on account of the risk he took. Their names are now mentioned because, through Pinchas, they had come back to life. (6)

Point of Reflection

The lesson we glean from this episode is that when we are confronted by challenges that we might otherwise consider overwhelming, we must not be intimidated. Though the challenge seems daunting, G-d gives the strength to prevail. At times, He even enhances our souls with a spark from a deceased tzadik. (7) Like Pinchas, if we commit with confidence, we will surely succeed. (8)


    1. Numbers 25: 1-9.
    2. Numbers 25 11:13. Pinchas was not a priest until
      that moment though he was the son of a priest. This is because Pinchas
      was alive when his father was consecrated as priest and though his
      tather’s future children would be consecrated, Pinchas was not. This
      changed when he committed his act of zeal.
    3. Numbers 60 – 61.
    4. Leviticus 10: 1-3. See Rashi’s commentary to 16: 3.
      See also Vayikrah Rabbah 12: 2. See commentary of Ohr Hachayoim on
      Levititcus 16: 1. See also sefer Hamamorim 5649 p. 259.
    5. See Zohar III 217 a. The Zohar goes on to say that
      multitudes from the tribe of Shimon pursued Pinchas to kill him and his
      soul expired from great fear. For a brief moment his body was without a
      soul and the souls oof Nadb and Abihu occupied it. They merged (or
      impregnated themselves) into Pinchas’s soul and with that Pinchas became
      his uncles. When Pinchas had children he rectified his uncles’ sin of
      causing their premature death before having had children.
    6. Pinchas had an exciting soul because a spark of
      Elijah’s soul was also inherent in Pinchas prompting our sages to
      declare that Pinchas was Elijah. When Moses (Exodus 4:13) begged G-d to
      send Moshiach to liberate the Jews from Egypt so that their redemption
      would be final, the mystics tell us it was Pinchas whom Moses had in
      mind because Pinchas is Elijah and Elijah is slated to herald the
      arrival of Moshiach.  The words Moses used were, “Shlach Na Beyad
      Send please by the hand [of the one you will] send. The word
      Na, which means please, is an acronym for the names Nadab and Abihu.


  • This essay is based on the commentary of the Sheloh
    Hakadosh on Numbers 25: 11. See also Shaar Hagilgulim ch.