G-d spoke to Moshe, saying, "Pinchas, the son of Elazar the son of Aharon HaKohen, turned away My anger from the Children of Israel, when he was zealous with My jealousy in the midst of them, so that I didn't destroy the Children of Israel in My jealousy." (Bamidbar 25:10)
The posuk is referring to Pinchas' act of zealousness at the end of last week's parshah, when he killed Zimri (a prince from the tribe of Shimon), and Cozbi, the Midianite princess sent in to lure Moshe. From amidst the chaos...
Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon HaKohen, saw and he arose from amidst the assembly and took his spear in his hand. (Bamidbar 25:7)
After 176,000 Jews had died for worshipping Ba'al Peor, and 24,000 from the tribe of Shimon died in a plague, Pinchas' act of zealousness restored the order. As a reward for this, Pinchas attained the unattainable: the kehuna (priesthood).
This is because Pinchas had already been born when G-d told Moshe that Aharon and his sons (i.e., Nadav, Avihu, Elazar, and Itamar), and their seed after them, would be priests forever. This meant children that would thereafter be born to Elazar; not those that had already been born, like Pinchas. This is why this week's parshah has to state:
"... The Covenant of the Kehuna will be for him and his descendants after him forever ... (Bamidbar 25:13)
There is only one problem, says the Pri Tzaddik: How could Pinchas retroactively become a kohen (which is what he would have had to have done to become a kohen, since G-d was not about to change the law just to let Pinchas become a kohen)? The answer, says the Pri Tzaddik, comes from the Zohar:
After Pinchas acted zealously ... and the tribe of Shimon came after him in anger, his soul left him, at which time the two souls of Nadav and Avihu entered him. (Zohar, Parashas Tzav 14b)
In other words, in the blink of an eye, the body of Pinchas both lost its previous soul and inherited two new ones, or better yet, two older ones: the souls of Nadav and Avihu. It was Nadav and Avihu who had died when they offered the "strange fire" back in Parashas Shemini. Now, according to the Zohar, it was the souls of Nadav and Avihu that had transformed Pinchas into someone who could, in effect, retroactively become a kohen. In other words, concludes the Pri Tzaddik, Pinchas' entrance into the Kehuna did not constitute a change in G-d's law, but the continuation of it.
This introduces a new idea that is alluded to by the Ba'al HaTurim, who states that Pinchas eventually became Eliyahu HaNavi. Normally, reincarnation means that a soul comes back in another lifetime and in a new body (usually unbeknownst to the person himself). However, this is usually only after the person has died and "returned" to the ground.
Nevertheless, this had not been the case with Pinchas, whose life didn't even skip a beat-literally. Instantaneously as Pinchas' own soul left him, the souls of Nadav and Avihu entered him; according to the Arizal, when Eliyahu's time came, that soul also entered Pinchas' body while he was living.
The addition of such souls, according to the Arizal, happens often in history. For reasons known mostly to G-d, He sends the souls of tzaddikim down as an "additions" to living individuals, sometimes for a short duration, sometimes for the rest of a person's life. Usually it is special souls being given to extraordinary people who have a major role to play in Jewish history.
Not only does this help to understand how Pinchas later became a kohen, but it also reminds us that it is a mistake to judge people by what the physical eye alone sees. We can judge actions, but it is very hard to judge souls, if not impossible. This is something only G-d can do.
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Author, lecturer, and scholar Rabbi Pinchas Winston is the director of ThirtySix.org.