Why in the middle of the parsha, in the middle of the counting of the nation, is there a throwback list of past people who were punished with death. That question along with the connection between various themes that don’t seem to fit together in this parshah will be answered with the following approach:
There are four topics in Parshat Pinchas:
1) Postscript to the Pinchas’ actions
2) Genealogy of Jewish People, the resolution of Bnot Tzlophchad issue – both of which are Part of the division of e Israel according to inheritance
3) The appointment of Yehoshua
4) the regular Temidim and additional Mussaf Korbanot.
The connective theme is the concept of korban (which is normally translated as sacrifice, but really means an act that increases closeness to G-d). These topics are each based on the korban model.
1. In Bamidbar 25:6 the passuk goes out of it’s way to use the terminology of kaarbanot, saying that a man brought (vayikriv) a midianite women to the tent door (it could have said he took, invited, or she came). In 25:12 Pinchas’s action is described as having avenged for his God and bringing atonement (vayichaper) for Bne Yisrael, another term associated with karbanot (and his reward is to become a kohein, one who offers karbanot). Medrish Tanchuma at the opening of the parsha asks on the passuk "vechi korban hikriv shnamar bo kaparah!?" - “Did he offer a korban; is that why this word is used?” The Medrash's answer, that his killing a wicked man was considered like offering a sacrifice, along with the question itself, is clearly connoting the korban theme.
2. These same phrases are repeated in the story of Bnot Tzlofchod (27:1, 5).Their approach of Moshe is preceded by the word vatikravna. It also states that they stood, vatoamodnah, before Moshe. This allusion to amidah connotes tefillah, which is avoda, like korbanot. The setting korban themed - "towards the opening of the Ohel Moed." Additionally, it doesn't merely say Moshe brought the Judicial question before God, but it says vayikrav moshe et divreihen lifnei Hashem, sounding very much like a kohein offering a korban on their behalf.
3. When leadership is transferred from Moshe to Yehoshua the symbolic vehicle utilized is smicha, the resting of hands, an action most commonly associated with the avodah of korbanot.
4. The last part of the Parsha is actually about korbanot.
The deep theme that runs throughthis parsha is that of replacement, the foundation of the concept of korbanot:
1. By attacking Zimri and Kazbi, Pinchas replaced G-d’s kin’ah - jealousy with his own (25:11). Hashem was intent upon destroying Am Yisrael, He did not destroy them because the killing of Zimri and Kazbi replaced the killing of Bnei Yisrael (velo kiniti et Bnei Yisrael). These replacements are the undercurrent of the korban that the Medrash says that Zimri and Kazbi became.
2a. The section about the allotment of the land of Israel deals with the generation that replaced the one which left Mitzrayim. As described in Shemot 3:8, the Yotz’ai Mitzrayim were originally meant to inherit the land but the next generation inherited in their stead.
2b. Bnot Tzlofchod replaced the men (father, brothers) that were not there to inherit the land.
3. Yehoshua replaced Moshe.
4. Karbanot are based on the principal of the animal replacing us.
There are several seemingly out of place references in this parsha to people who were punished by G-d with death. These can be explained in light of the approach we’ve developed.
26:9-11 speaks of Korach and co. Their desire was to replace Moshe and Aharon. Their names are actually evoked by the daughters of Tzlofchod in contrast to their father (who they wish to rightfully fill in for). Korach had an insincere personal agenda motivating his demand for replacement.
26:19 refers to Eir and Onan. At the center of that story is Onan’s refusal to replace the lineage of his deceased brother. There is also reference to the death of Aharon’s sons. They brought an innappropriate korban that did not serve to replace them, thus their lives were taken. Aharon and others, on the other hand, who brought korbanot correctly were replaced by their korban.
The fact that this portion focuses on replacement is not surprising taken in light of the episode which precedes it. The previous portion focuses on abuses of the concept of korban. Bilam continuously uses korbanot towards accomplishing his evil designs. He tries to bribe G-d with korbanot (much as Balak tries to bribe Bilam with korbanot). Also, at the end of the parsha Bnei Yisrael are involved with activities that are refered to as zivchei meitim - dead, ineffective korbanot.
There is a striking similarity between Bilam’s story and the story of the Akeida. Chazal note the description of Bilam rising early and preparing his donkey for his journey, and imagine G-d telling him, “Wicked one, Avraham already preceded you in rising early.” These two personalities personify a contreast between self-centeredness on the one hand, and self-sacrifice on the other.
It is not arbitrarily that the Mishna in Avot chose to contrast the students of Avraham and the followers of Bilam. (Some commentaries explain that Chazal contrast the students, because sometimes the differences can be hard to detect in the masters). there are many contrasts between these two people. The Akeidah, is also very connected to the Bilam story, as well as to the continuation story of Pinchas.
Pinchas put himself in danger. Like Yitzchak in the akeidah story - the penultimate example of the concept of korban, he was willing to sacrifice his own life and was then replaced and saved. (Normally, one can not become a Kohein. Even as a gift from G-d we don’t see another example of this once it was set who the Kohanim were. Rav Nachman Kahane suggests that Pinchas actually became a new person, and the person he became was a Kohein. Within the terminology we’ve been using, you could say that the old Pinchas was replaced by a new one!)
The Jewish people at this time were involved in Giui Arayot and Ovadah Zarah. It makes sense that ovodah needs to be strengthened at this point (see a similar situation, Achrei Mot/Kedoshim where after the avodah of korbanot is corrupted it is reestablished).
The pattern of korbanot is that there are always 7 kvasim and one ayil and on Sukkot its doubled (the number of parim varies, but the 7 kvasyim and 1 ayil is constant). 7+1=8. 8 represents brit. The akiedah is the epitome of a brit. The akiedah is here and alluded to as the paradigm of true avodah. It is quite worthy of note that the 8th animal in each set is an ayil, as an olah, as was ultimately offered in the Akieda.
In conclusion, this parsha presents a restatement of the fundamental concept of replacement as it relates to true service of G-d.
The story of Pinchas takes place in Parshat Balak. Only the postscript of Pinchas' reward appears in the section that bears his name. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy explains that a thin line separates impulsive intolerance from righteous zeal. Time clarifies motivation. The pause between Pinchas' action and his repayment represent a period of observation. After evaluation proved Pinchas was mature and sincere, his behavior was rewarded.
Adolescence is a time of self discovery and a time of rebellion. Not always do convictions of youth last. Rabbi Abraham Twerski applies this to some anti-establishment rebels of the 1960s. He writes: "Twenty years later finds some of the most vehement protestors wearing business suits and conservative shoes, their hair neatly styled, and carrying briefcases as they emerge from their suburban homes, very much a part of the "establishment" which they had so violently condemned in their youth." He suggests that their actions were clearly informed by impetuousness endemic to their age.
Closer to home, there are many people who leave religion or "find" their Jewish religion in their late teens and early twenties. Who they really want to be becomes clear only in time as their behavior at 18 or 21 becomes a footnote to their lives.
May we be blessed to be the best of our youth for the rest of our lives.