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Pinchas stepped into the breach when no one else knew what to do. A prince of one of the tribes had brazenly had relations with a Midianite woman in full view of the public, and a plague broke out among the Jewish people. It was an act so utterly sordid and so utterly stunning that no one knew how to react. No one remembered what the Torah demanded in such a situation.
According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82a), when Pinchas saw what was happening he was reminded of the ruling that “the zealous can take the law into their own hands and strike down a man who has relations with a gentile woman.” With Moshe’s blessing, he killed both the man and the woman with one blow, and the plague came to an end. For his valiant deed, Hashem rewarded Pinchas with His “covenant of peace” and the eternal priesthood.
Why does the Torah mention that Pinchas was descended from Aharon in this context?
The Midrash, quoted by Rashi, tells us that the public reaction to Pinchas’ act was not so positive. People remembered that Pinchas was descended from Aharon on one side but from Yisro on another, and they saw in his violent deed signs of his bloodline from Yisro. “Look at this child of idolaters,” they said. “Where does he get the audacity to cut down a Jewish prince?” Therefore, the Torah traces his genealogy to Aharon to show the correctness of his deed.
question remains, however. No one had denied or forgotten that Pinchas was a grandson of Aharon. They had accused Pinchas of acting as his idolatrous maternal grandfather Yisro would have acted, not as his paternal grandfather Aharon, that consummate lover of peace, would have acted. They claimed to have discerned in Pinchas the dominance of his pagan bloodlines. How did Hashem’s declaration that Pinchas was Aharon’s descendant exonerate and vindicate him?
Rav Meir Bergman, in his Shaarei Orah, explains that when Hashem declared in this situation that Pinchas was Aharon’s descendant, He was saying clearly that this is the bloodline that led him to perform his act of zealotry. Aharon himself would have come roaring into the camp with his spear extended and impaled the two miscreants with one thrust.
But how can such a thing be? How could a lover of peace such as Aharon commit such a violent act?
The Chasam Sofer takes note of the language of the Mishneh (Avos 1:12) that describes Aharon as “a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace.” What is the significance of this dual description? It reflects two aspects of Aharon’s personality. On the one hand, he was a lover of peace, a man who spread harmony and peace among people.
But sometimes he had to be a pursuer of peace, a man who drove peace away when that was the right thing to do. True peace (shalom) is the manifestation of a state of perfection (shalem). Compromise with the imperfect does not lead to true peace. In that case, when faced with the vile, the despicable, the quest for true peace demanded that Aharon shun a seemingly peaceful accommodation with the forces of evil. It demanded that he drive away such a peace, that he pursue it out of the Jewish camp. Only then would it be possible to arrive at a state of true peace, a state of peace between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven.
The Brisker Rav, in the name of his father Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, makes a similar point from a slightly different perspective. Why did Hashem reward Pinchas with “My covenant of peace”? Pinchas had just committed a violent, albeit very commendable, act of zealous defense of the Divine honor. Therefore, he should have been rewarded with Hashem’s “covenant of zealotry.” Why His “covenant of peace”?
Imagine a brave soldier returning from the battlefield after heroically turning the tide of battle against the enemy. Would we award him the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Nobel Peace Prize? Was Pinchas, lehavdil, a candidate for the Peace Prize?
The answer is that Pinchas restored true peace between the Jewish people and Hashem. If that required a violent act, then so be it. The lover of peace would have to commit a violent act in order to achieve the higher goal of true peace. Sometimes, the road to true peace is not very peaceful.
We often hear criticism of great rabbis who take doctrinaire stands on various issues. “Why do they have to make machlokes (dissension)?” people complain. “Why do they have to start up? Why can’t they leave well enough alone? Is this peace? It’s machlokes! It’s divisiveness!”
We’re familiar with these complaints. We’ve heard them since the people mocked Pinchas in the desert. Hashem answered these complaints by telling us that Pinchas’ way was the way of peace. His actions were worthy of the covenant of peace. Today as well, those rabbis who stand up for the truth, for the integrity of the Torah, are the ones who spread true peace among the Jewish people.