The Key to Jewish Leadership

Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen heishiv es chamasi me’al Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 25:11)

At the end of Parashas Balak, the Jewish people were enticed to sin with Midianite women, which resulted in a plague that killed 24,000 Jews. Anxious to stem the spread of the plague, Aharon’s grandson Pinchas killed Zimri, the leader of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly taking part in the sin. This week’s parashah begins with Hashem extolling Pinchas for his actions, and promising him a covenant of peace and eternal priesthood as his reward.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (82a) records that when Pinchas saw Zimri sinning, he approached Moshe and asked him, “When you came down from Har Sinai, didn’t you teach us that if somebody is publicly sinning with a non-Jewish woman it is permissible to kill him?” In his sefer Pachad Yitzchok on Sukkos (129:5), Harav Yitzchok Hutner quotes the Vilna Gaon, who questions why this extremely rare and unusual law was one of the first mitzvos that Moshe elected to teach the people upon his descent from the mountain.

The Vilna Gaon explains that there are times when a Jewish leader is required to perform an action that is classified as halachah v’ein morin ken — in accordance with Jewish law, yet so atypical and unorthodox that a Jewish court would in fact not instruct an ordinary person to carry out the action even if the person asks the court, as these are extraordinary measures whose use and application is restricted to the judgment and discretion of Jewish leaders in exceptional circumstances.

When Moshe initially came down from the mountain, he did not explicitly mention the law invoked by Pinchas in this episode. Rather, his first action was to shatter the Luchos in response to the golden calf that the people had made. The Gemara (Shabbos 87a) teaches that Moshe broke the Luchos on his own, without being commanded by Hashem to do so, as he reasoned that if a mumar (apostate) is forbidden from eating from the korban Pesach, which is only one mitzvah, all the more so is he excluded from the Luchos that represent the entire Torah, which contains 613 mitzvos.

The Vilna Gaon explains that Pinchas learned from Moshe’s actions when he came down from the mountain that there are times when a leader is expected to have the courage to act as a situation requires, even if it doesn’t appear to adhere to the usual set of rules; and it was this lesson to which he was referring when he raised the idea of killing Zimri to Moshe.

Harav Yisroel Reisman adds that Pinchas’ reward was a covenant of eternal priesthood. Similarly, shortly before Aharon became a Kohen, the Jewish people approached him and asked him to make gods for them (Shemos 32:1). Rashi writes (32:5) that Aharon agreed to do so, reasoning that it was preferable that the resulting Divine anger be directed against him and not against the nation. In other words, in his role as national leader, Aharon determined that the extraordinary circumstances in which he found himself warranted breaking the traditional rules.

If not for the sin of the golden calf, the bechorim (firstborns) would have served as priests in the Temple; but as a result of Aharon’s extraordinary willingness to risk his own spiritual well-being for the good of the nation, he became the progenitor of all future Kohanim. Aharon’s temporary suspension of the rules was similar to the breaking of the Luchos by his brother Moshe, whose example Pinchas followed by killing Zimri. This is not a lesson that we may emulate, yet it is nevertheless an important and fundamental insight regarding the unique qualities that make Jewish leaders great.

Q: The Targum Yonason ben Uziel (25:12) writes that as a reward for Pinchas’ zealotry, Hashem promised that he would live forever and would herald the final redemption. Our Sages explain that Eliyahu Hanavi was none other than Pinchas. In what way did Pinchas’ actions make him uniquely suited for this role, and in what way was this reward measure for measure?

A: Rabbeinu Bechaye notes that the Torah precedes Pinchas’ reward by stressing (25:11) that his actions caused Hashem’s anger at the Jews to subside; and as a result, He did not destroy them in His rage. This implies that if not for Pinchas, Hashem would have obliterated the entire nation. Because Pinchas was responsible for the continued existence of the Jewish people from that moment onward, it was a fitting reward that he also merited living eternally.

Alternatively, the Brisker Rav answers that one of Eliyahu’s key functions will be to clarify confusing legal issues by ruling on previously irresolvable disputes. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 82a) records that Moshe forgot the law that a zealot is permitted to kill a Jew who publicly sins with a non-Jewish woman; and it was Pinchas who remembered the law and fulfilled it by killing Zimri. Because Pinchas clarified the law in this critical situation, he merited becoming Eliyahu, who will do so on a much larger scale.

Q: Are the laws of inheritance considered chukim — laws whose reason is hidden from us and that we perform solely because Hashem commanded us — or mishpatim, laws that we are able to logically understand on some level?

A: Rabbeinu Bechaye writes that at least some parts of the laws of inheritance are straightforward and logical. The Malbim and Harav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l, point out that the Torah refers (27:11) to these laws as a chukas mishpat, which means that they contain both elements. Although some of the laws seem to defy understanding, there is some order that can be logically understood by those who invest the effort.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email