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By Mike Fenster

This week a new leader is chosen.  Sound familiar?  In chapter 27 of today’s sedrah, God reveals that Joshua is to be the new leader of the Israelites.  But at the start of the sedrah, it looks as if Pinchas is odds-on favourite to be that leader.  Last week, we read how amidst the idolatry of Baal-Peor, an Israelite Zimri-ben-Salu took a Midianite woman Cozbi-bat-Zur and paraded her in front of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting as the people were mourning Aaron.  Pinchas, who as Aaron’s grandson was one of the mourners, was so outraged that he chased Zimri and Cozbi to the ‘Kubah’, the chamber of the tent of meeting, and impaled them both with his spear.   

And today, in 25:12, God tells Moses that he is so proud of his great nephew that God is giving him his Covenant of Peace – Brit Shalom – and a covenant of everlasting priesthood – Brit Kahunat Olam.  Would Moses have wanted his relative Pinchas to be his successor? 

Pinchas may have been too young and impetuous to be considered as Moses’ successor, but his later exploits are more creditable.  He successfully leads an Israelite army against the Midianites to avenge the incident with Baal Peor, killing all the Midianite men, but sparing the women and boys. Was Pinchas starting to feel remorse for his earlier zealotry? 

Later, when the tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh settle in Transjordan, they establish an altar which the other tribes mistake for a separatist move to set up a new religious centre.  Pinchas is sent to investigate.  He negotiates and accepts their sincere motives, and the threat of civil war and secession is averted.   

In the Mishnah, Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron; a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all people created by God and draws them close to Torah”.  So is Pinchas inheriting the mantle of the peace lover from his grandfather straight after his death?  What did the Covenant of Peace mean?  One explanation is that God gave Pinchas the covenant of peace because he was so troubled by the spontaneous, youthfully impetuous way he had killed Zimri and Cozbi.  

The Neziv, Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, said that this deed would leave heart such intense emotional unrest in Pinchas’ heart that the divine blessing was designed to cope with the situation; it promised peace and tranquillity of the soul.  Is this a lesson that youthful indiscretions should be disregarded in the search for a new leader? 

When Moses asks God to appoint a successor, but humbly doesn’t suggest Pinchas or one of his own sons, Midrash Rabbah suggests that maybe having seen that God had just re-confirmed the hereditary principle in the case of Zelophehad, Moses thought that God would let one of his sons succeed him.  But no – God appoints Joshua.  The Midrash quotes Proverbs 27:18: He who looks after the fig tree shall eat the fruit thereof.  Joshua looked after Moses, was the attendant of the Mishkan where Moses ministered, and so was appointed the successor.   

But we are left wondering what Israel’s fate would have been if Pinchas had been chosen. 

Mike Fenster is a member of Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue

Posted on 25 July 2019