Parashat Pinechas, named after Aaron’s grandson Phineas, is the forty-first weekly portion in the Torah and the eighth in the Book of Numbers (25:10-30:1). It is the longest portion aside from Parashat Naso, and it is read more often than any other, as it contains a listing of the offerings for every weekday, Sabbath, New Moon and Festival.
The portion begins in medias res, as the last nine verses of Parashat Balak (25:1-9) tell us the Moabite plan which does work: seducing the Israelites into worshipping the pagan god Baal Peor. Just as King Balak of Moab consults the elders of Midian about hiring Balaam, the daughters of Moab have a prominent figure from Midian on their side: Princess Cozbi, who publicly trysts with an Israelite tribal prince, Zimri of Simeon. Phineas zealously kills them, putting an end to the plague.
What is Phineas’ reward (25:10-18)? We might expect him to become a military leader, but instead God grants him “My covenant of peace… a covenant of eternal priesthood.” Although there are many battles which lie ahead for this generation of Israelites, violence must never become a way of life for them. War with Midian is now inevitable, but Phineas’ role in it will be not as captain, but as chaplain.
However, the Israelites are in no shape to go to war. Before they can confront another nation, they have to heal themselves. The first step is assessing the damage, by way of a census (Chapter 26). The next stage (Chapter 27) is clarifying the laws of inheritance and succession. The term family appears ninety-seven times in these two chapters, underscoring how important this unit is in the Torah; the dalliance with the women of Moab and Midian has done serious damage to this concept, and the men of Israel must repair the breach. Even Moses recognizes his failure in preventing or stopping the Plague of Peor, and thus he asks God to ensure that the people have a worthy leader to succeed him.
Once Israel has mended its human relationships, it turns heavenward, for the laws of the communal offerings (28:1-30:1). Maintaining a relationship with God requires constant investment. God does not need sheep or goats, wine or oil; but as human beings, we need a way to connect with Him day by day, week by week, month by month and year by year.
The portion from the Prophets is from the First Book of Kings (18:46-19:21), the story of Elijah at Horeb (Mount Sinai). There is a strong tradition identifying Elijah with Phineas, as both are credited with being zealous for God’s sake. The necessity of tempering this zeal with the element of peace is underscored by the fact that God appears not in a tempest or a firestorm, but with “a small, still voice.” Another link to the portion is that Elijah must prepare his successor, Elisha, just as Moses in this portion is told to appoint Joshua as the next leader of Israel.