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My Covenant of Peace

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Pinchas, begins with God bestowing a special gift, “My covenant of peace,” on Pinchas. Although Pinchas was the grandson of Aaron, the High Priest, and alive at the time when Aaron and his sons were first selected to the mantle of priesthood, he was not anointed with them. Rashi explains, “The pledge of ‘My covenant of peace’ has the sense of a greeting one sends to a person to whom one is indebted.” God, so to speak, was showing gratitude to Pinchas after his heroic action which prevented a national desecration of God’s name.

What creates peace? How does it come about? Peace is the result of harmony. In any system, when all parts are functioning as they should, the system is in harmony. One part or component of the entity is not working against or contrary to any other part of the entity. This idea is true whether we are talking about the laws of physics, the human circulatory system, or the human psyche comprised of the instincts, emotions and intellect. For a person to be truly at peace, his or her entire nature must be in harmony.
The role of the priests were essentially two fold, to help the individual person maintain equilibrium or return to proper balance, while the other is to provide for national order and harmony. When a person brought a sacrifice to the Temple, there existed the opportunity to discuss with the priests on duty, including the High Priest who was always on duty, the purpose for bringing the sacrifice. This review with the attending priest would help to clarify ideas and bring to the fore the internal motivation behind the offering. Perhaps something was out of harmony and the Kohain could help the person restore his or her peace. Then sacrificial alter would serve its purpose as an atonement, a restoration, for the person.

As noted in this week’s portion, the priests were not given any area of land in Israel. This omission was not an oversight, but was rather by design. The priests were divided into 24 groups. Any one group was only on duty at the Temple every 24th week or twice a year. Because of the great number of priests, perhaps a priest’s assignment was on Tuesday from noon to 5. What did the priests do with all their time? They had no land to farm. The main occupations of the priests were to be the teachers and judges of the nation. The Rambam says in the Laws of the Court, “It is a mitzvah to appoint priests … to the Supreme Court.” (Laws of the Court, 2:2) They were responsible for the nation having the correct ideas and philosophy of life. The proper working and harmony of an individual’s psyche and the welfare of the social order for the nation were their chief responsibilities.

Sometimes, to maintain social order and harmony or to inculcate the proper conduct and philosophy of life, a leader must take drastic measures. Such was the situation faced by Pinchas recorded at the end of last week’s portion, Balak. The greatest good one person can do for another is to direct him or her to a relationship with God through correct knowledge and proper conduct. That is the only way a person can have a real relationship with God. On the other hand, the greatest harm to another person is to teach false ideas or permit activities that removes a person from a relationship with God.

There is one underlying idea the drives a person like Pinchas. It is expressed in our Ethics of the Fathers, Pirkey Avot.  “Rabbi Akiva use to say, ‘Beloved is man for he is created in the image of God.’” (Avot 3:18) If a person truly recognizes that every human being possess that quality, how could you not want to help another person attain and maintain the “image of God” in its most perfect state. Pirkey Avot also tells us, “Hillel would say: ‘Be like the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people, and bringing them closer to the Torah.’” (Avot 1:18) Our great Sages tell us Aaron would go out of his way, even relinquishing his honor, to make peace between people, even between husband and wife. Not merely was Pinchas a grandson of Aaron, more importantly he was a disciple.
The “covenant of peace” represents the highest level of operation for any individual or society to attain. How do the priests conclude the priestly benediction recited in our prayers? “May Hashem turn His countenance to you and grant you peace.” It is the greatest blessing from God to be at peace.

As we are now in the midst of the three weeks leading up to Tisha b’Av, let us rededicate our efforts through study and practice to bring harmony to ourselves and peace to all humanity.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan