“The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying:  Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Aharon the Cohen, has caused My wrath to be withdrawn from the children of Israel, in that he was zealous on My behalf among them; that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My zealotry. Therefore, say: Behold I am giving him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him, a covenant of an eternal priesthood because he was zealous for his God, and he atoned for the children of Israel.” (Bamidbar 25:10-13)

A scourge of immorality was raging through the Israelite camp. Thousands of men were engaged in forbidden relations with Midyanite and Moabite women. The rot went right to the top: the chief of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri ben Salu, took a Midyanite princess, Cozbi bat Tzur, into his tent in full view of Moshe and the nation. A plague, the manifestation of God’s displeasure with the people, broke out in the camp. At that point, Pinchas, a grandson of Aharon, took his spear, entered the tent of Zimri and killed him and his paramour in flagrante delicto. His act of zealotry was justified by a halakha that everyone had forgotten.  Immediately, the plague came to a stop. Pinchas received a commendation and a reward from none other than God Himself: “Behold I am giving him My covenant of peace. It shall be for him and for his descendants after him, a covenant of an eternal priesthood…”

There is a strange quirk in the text of the Sefer Torah that describes Pinchas’s reward. The word shalom, peace, is written with the vav severed, almost as if it were not there. It is not unusual to have an occasional letter of larger or smaller size than the rest of the surrounding text. The shin of the word Shemah and the dalet of the word echad are larger than the other letters in the first verse of the Shemah (Devarim 6:4). The aleph of the word Vayikrah is smaller than the other letters in the opening verse of the book of Leviticus.  But a letter that is cut in half is extremely rare. If not for the fact that this is the received tradition, mesorah (traditional Biblical text), we would most likely have disqualified the Sefer Torah for containing a severed letter (Orach Chaim 32:16). Many scholars have attempted to explain the reason behind this strange letter.  One of the most interesting suggestions is given by Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (Minsk 1888 – Israel 1978) in his book, L’Torah u’l’Moadim.

Rabbi Zevin’s thesis is based on the difference between the words shalom, peace, spelled with a vav and shalem, perfect, spelled without a vav. The word in our verse seems to be a synthesis of both – it has a vav and is thus pronounced shalom but the vav is severed, as if it is not there, and is thus closer to shalem.  Rabbi Zevin notes that there are two forms of unity – mechanical and organic. Mechanical unity, like the four walls of a house that make up the structure, is external and does not contain a central ‘force’ that transforms the units into a single entity. Organic unity, on the other hand, is internal, like the way in which the organs of the body function together. The life force that flows through them all unites them into a single entity – the body. This, explains Rabbi Zevin, is the difference between shalem and shalom. A perfect (shalem), unified entity is complete in its very core and essence. But when peace (shalom) is achieved between two (or more) parties, no matter how great the peace is, the unity remains external because the two items are not actually fused into a single unit.

Rabbi Zevin gives as an example the distinction between the peaceful relations among different nations of the world and the unity of the people of Israel, about whom Scripture (I Chronicles 17:21) states, “Who is like your nation Israel, one nation in the land?” When nations are at peace with one another, this is not an internal unity, but is based largely on interests. A particular country might actually loathe another country but if it is in their best interests to be at peace, for example for trade and commerce, they will not display signs of hostility. Consider South Africa, a so-called beacon of democracy in the world, a nation that defied oppression to create a non-racial society with a strong constitution and bill of rights. Logically, South Africa should welcome a person like the Dalai Lama of Tibet with open arms. After all, his people have been oppressed for decades by a powerful regime. And yet, South Africa will not even grant him an entry permit. Why? Because it is in South Africa’s best interests to maintain good relations with China, one of their major trade partners. Were they to welcome the Dalai Lama they would immediately alienate the Chinese. In the words of the Mishna (Avot chapter 5), “Any love that is based upon a matter, if the matter dissipates, so will the love.” Peace only exists as long as it is in my best interest to have cordial relations with the other party.

The unity of the Jewish people stems from the fact that there is something internal that binds them and that is the Torah. The Torah reaches into every part of the Jewish people, just as the soul brings life to all the organs, unifying them into a single body. And there was (and will be again), one place on earth that was designed to unite all Jews (see Rashi, Bamidbar 16:6), the Beit Mikdash (Temple). This ability to unite the nation was both internal and external. Hence, we find that the Temple is sometimes referred to as sukkat shalem, a perfect canopy (Hoshanot prayers of Sukkot) and other times, is called sukkat shalom, a canopy of peace (Friday night service.) The Temple was a gathering place where Jews would come on the three pilgrimage festivals. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from very different backgrounds would gather there to worship together. This was an external form of unity. But what truly bound them together was the fact that the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court) sat on the Temple compound where they served as the final arbiter of Jewish Law, so that “from Zion would go forth Torah and His word from Jerusalem.” If the nation was committed to the Torah, as expounded by the Sanhedrin and the sages, then God’s Presence would be manifest and an organic form of unity would exist. But if the nation faltered in their commitment to the Torah, then the Temple would be no better than a regular meeting place, where people just happened to come together, not unlike the four walls of a house.

We now return to the reward bestowed upon Pinchas. His covenant of peace was a covenant of eternal priesthood. The Cohen’s duty was twofold: Firstly, to increase the external peace within the Nation of Israel.  They were to ensure that Jews were concerned with each other’s welfare. This was the hallmark of Aharon, the first Cohen Gadol who “loved peace, pursued peace and loved people” (Avot chapter 1). Secondly, the Cohen was tasked with the duty of imparting Torah to the people as the prophet (Malachi 2:7) states, “For the lips of the Cohen will guard knowledge and they will seek Torah from his mouth.” Moreover, the Torah (Devarim 17:8-9) instructs the lower courts to ascend to the Temple when they have a question they cannot resolve and “to appear before the Cohanim, the Levites”. In this way, they would achieve an internal peace in the Nation. Thus the word shalom is written in such a way that it implies both a mechanical, external unity (shalom) and an organic, internal unity (shalem).

Good Shabbos

Rabbi Liebenberg


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