parsha of the week

Pinchas and ‘Brit Shalom,’ a Covenant of Peace


An interesting cast of characters have parshas named for them: Noach, Yisro, Korach, Balak, Pinchas (Chayei Sarah includes a name, which comes after her death). Each has his own story of intrigue, making the coincidence of their being in this club a source for much homily.  

Pinchas is most famous for his act of zealotry in punishing Zimri for his immoral act of defiance, which he perpetrated in front of Moshe and the elders. What makes him unique, is that he literally emerges out of nowhere. He is a protagonist for a very small amount of Torah-space, and then he disappears into obscurity again, only to reemerge in the books of the Prophets – in Yehoshua and Shoftim. The gift he receives, however, is one of the more coveted in the Torah: he receives from G-d “Brit Shalom,” G-d’s “Covenant of Peace.”

What is the Covenant of Peace? Were you to Google the term “Brit Shalom” you would find many websites dedicated to “Bris without circumcision.” This is not the forum to discuss this, but I do find it ironic that a certain website utilizes two negative commandments, not to imprint marks on the body and not to make cuttings in the flesh, to prove that Bris Milah goes against the Torah. Invoking negative commandments out of context (the first refers to tattoos and the second refers to cutting the flesh over the loss of a loved one) while ignoring Bereshit 17 and Vayikra 12:3 is a lesson in intellectual dishonesty.

Pinchas has become a symbol at the Bris Milah ceremony, as the first verses of our parsha are recited as a reminder of Pinchas’s role in defending the covenant.

But was the “Covenant of Peace” meant to refer specifically to the Covenant of Circumcision? Every commentary has a different approach. Some include that Zimri’s relatives will not seek revenge, that he had been grandfathered out of being a kohen and now he would inherit his father’s position, that he will be the Messiah delivering the message of World Peace. And some talk about Pinchas being the defender of “the” covenant,  Bris Milah.

I find the Seforno’s interpretation compelling, because it carries a lesson we can all live by, live for, and pray for ourselves and our loved ones. The Seforno writes “The Covenant of Peace [meaning] from the Angel of Death. Pinchas outlived all the people of his generation— by a lot—as he was still the kohen in Mishkan Shilo at the time of the Pilegesh B’Givah story (Shoftim 20:28). … By most accounts this was at least 300 years later. … Certainly, according to those who say Eliyahu was Pinchas, then he still lives.”

It is worth noting that Ibn Ezra thoroughly rejects the idea that Pinchas was later Eliyahu. And, of course, there are non-literal interpretations of what the Pinchas=Eliyahu equation means, as well as what “Eliyahu still lives” means. A much longer discussion.

But even Ibn Ezra cannot get around the fact that Pinchas is still around at the end of the book of Shoftim, which means that Pinchas lived for a length of time that is completely uncharacteristic of his generation.

I do not believe that we live in a world in which a person can literally cheat the Angel of Death through living for centuries. But, as a 93-year old great grandmother I met at a recent Bris told me, “I get up every morning, swim my laps for 45 minutes and then I get on with my day. It’s what keeps me alive.”

For some people it is a physical activity— exercise, playing tennis, golf or basketball. For others it is daily minyan or a regular shiur they attend. Having that routine keeps you alive because there is something to look forward to on a daily basis.

And while this is by no means a guarantee for longevity— genes and a healthy lifestyle probably have more to do with it than anything—perhaps the lesson from Pinchas is that if we know what we believe in and take a stand when necessary, we can hopefully merit the blessing of the Covenant of Peace.

That when our time does come, whether after 50, 75, 100 years or the proverbial 120, if we’ve lived our lives wholly and fully with no regrets, we may be blessed to have a peaceful end, without suffering, in a way that we and our loved ones can feel that we got the better of the Angel of Death.

I certainly hope for everyone to live a long life, and to enjoy life and family for many years. But as no one lives forever, hopefully we can merit to go into the sunset, riding at the top, where not even the Angel of Death can reach.

A version of this column was previously published.