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Haftarah Parshat Pinehas

Haftarah Parshat Pinehas (1 Kings 18:46-19:21)
July 12, 2014 / 14 Tammuz 5774

The sages were assiduous readers of the Tanach. No detail escaped their eyes or analysis and it is this characteristic which prompted them to link this week’s Torah reading which begins with a story about Pinehas with a story about Elijah the prophet in the haftarah. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Pinehas is promised a “covenant of the priesthood for all times” for his zealousness for his God (Numbers 25 15) This coupled with a verse from Psalms: “Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead; they provoked the Lord to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. Then Pinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed; and it was reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.” (106:28-31) From these verses, the idea that Pinehas never died: “behold I am giving him My covenant of peace – that he is still alive.” (Numbers Rabba 21:3)

Elijah is the only other character in the Tanach who had a reputation for zealousness. (See 1 Kings 19:10, 14) This coupled with the fact that nothing is said of his birth and that he seemingly escaped death, having ascended into heaven alive (2 Kings 2:11), prompted a tradition that Elijah was indeed Pinhas, as we note in the following midrash: “God said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ (! Kings 19:9) And he said, ‘I have been very zealous…’  (Ibid. 10) God said to him: ‘You are always being zealous! You were zealous at Shittim about forbidden sexual unions, as it says, ‘Pinehas the son of Elazar … has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel’ – and here you are being zealous again.” (Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 29)

What are we to make of this bizarre association? Yitzhak Heinemann, in his classic book, Darchei haAgadah, explains that it was a common literary phenomenon for the sages to “telescope” similar personalities, claiming in ahistorical fashion that a person from one period might be another in a different epoch all on account of their characteristic zeal for God’s honor. (p. 30) This identification seems to have been widespread in the Jewish world in ancient times. (See J. Kugel, The Bible As It Was, pp. 497-500)

In the verse quoted above regarding Pinehas, we see that he gained renown for his zeal and his reward was a covenant of peace. Elijah, on the other hand is anything but a peaceful personality. He is pure zeal. A late biblical tradition presents us with a transformed Elijah: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that when I come, I do not strike the whole land with destruction.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

These two biblical characters represent zeal transformed into peace. In these days, when we have experienced a great deal of overwrought zeal it may be an important lesson to learn that it can and should be transformed into peace. The transformations of Pinehas/Elijah show us that this is possible.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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