The Reincarnations Of Pinchas/Elijah
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The Reincarnations Of Pinchas/Elijah

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:28 p.m.
Torah: Num. 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: I Kings 18:46-19:21
Havdalah: 8:27 p.m.

Could the dead be heirs to the living? This is an idea Rashi casually lets drop when it comes to the division of the land. This radical discovery provides the key to this week’s parsha.

Rashi’s commentary has relevance to the story of the daughters of Zelophchad. The motivation for these young women in presenting their claim to inheritance was the desire for their father’s name to live on through them, a wish upheld by God. But this idea also applies to the killing of Cozbi and Zimri [Numbers 25:6-15]. When the Midianite princess and Israelite prince are openly intimate in the Tent of Meeting, Pinchas rushes in and slays both with his spear, and as he exits, displays them in their final embrace before the entire camp. Not only does Pinchas’ violent attack have Divine sanction, he is rewarded with God’s Covenant of Peace, or wholeness, and the priesthood forever.

Since the hallmark of a priest is kindness, this reward seems counterintuitive, but when balancing the extremes, it makes sense: “Pinchas has turned aside My anger against the children of Israel. Because he has been zealous for My sake in their midst, I need not consume [them] out of jealousy.” By targeting the main culprits, Pinchas has ended the plague.

However, if the lovers were liable, the Mei HaShiloach asks, why did Moses himself not take action? Why did many of Israel’s elders consider Pinchas, not Zimri, the guilty party? To save His young champion from the consequences of a capital offense, God Himself defends Pinchas on the grounds of motivation and his extreme youth. Traditionally, Pinchas was just short of bar mitzvah, and therefore not liable — “fanatic, son of a fanatic,” a “kanai” (zealot) acting for God and out of love for His people [Num. 25:11]. “For Israel is a child, and I love him” [Hosea 11:1]. Neither the protagonist nor reader is given any indication as to individual motivations. But, according to an esoteric strain deriving from the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria), Cozbi and Zimri were soulmates from before Creation. As such they had no say in their union. Since they had no free choice, they had no guilt.

Rather than rewarding Pinchas’ lack of maturity, or “shlemut,” God imposes a pact on the young man, meant to teach him forbearance when it comes to the motivation of others, a process that must be learned over many lifetimes. To learn tolerance, Pinchas is sentenced to reincarnation in a painful cycle of rebirths. According to early Kabbalah, this happens only to those who are guilty of a sexual transgression, are childless, or who have not completed their life’s work.

The Zohar tells us that after Pinches’ onslaught, his soul left him only to return reinforced by the souls of Nadav and Avihu, the two elder sons of Aaron who died offering “strange fire” in the Tent of Meeting. From their sacrifice, and from the parallel devotion of Cozbi and Zimri, Pinchas will understand the havoc wrought by boundless ardor; only then will the extremes of perpetrator and victim, hate and love, begin to merge. But Pinchas’ chief reincarnation will come in the form of the prophet Elijah, whose main element, like Nadav and Avihu’s, is fire.

We’re told that the Elijah archetype manifests a strong strain of fanaticism, but mellows with each incarnation. By Talmudic times he begins to stand for positive human relationships. He shows up in many guises — as an old man, an Arab, a horseman, a Roman official, even as a prostitute. He helps the poor, cures a rabbi of a toothache, and brings together husband and wife. Elijah even develops a sense of humor. There is a Talmudic saying that when Elijah comes to town, dogs roll on their backs and begin to play [Baba Kamma 16b].

Throughout his many appearances, Elijah retains his initial fire. He is said to participate in every havdalah ceremony distinguishing between light and darkness; during every pogrom and persecution. He was seen in the death camps; he went into the crematoria.

The Emek Davar explains that Elijah, himself childless, was sentenced to return throughout the generations to preside over the Brit Milah, the initiation ceremony into the Covenant for all male Jewish children, so that they should piece together for him the “covenant of wholeness.”

The type of integration Pinchas/Elijah effects reconciles seeming contradictions in how we read a set of circumstances in either life or thought. For example, the Ari says that immediately after Cozbi and Zimri were killed, God revealed to Pinchas that, though a blasphemous act had been perpetrated, the lovers were spiritually not to blame. Elijah, by undergoing a transformation over time, makes whole the covenant between God and Pinchas: the dead are heirs to the living.

A harbinger of messianic peace, Elijah is a living demonstration of personal redemption. For ultimately, says Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, the deepest rifts are internal. Their resolution is the real meaning of the “covenant of wholeness.” 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

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