By Rabbi Joshua (critically known as The Hoffer) Hoffman [z"l]
This week's parsha begins by telling us of the reward Pinchas received for the act of zealotry he performed, in slaying Zimri and Kozbi, while they were in the midst of a public act of debauchery. We are told that Pinchas was the son of Elazar who was the son of Aharon the Kohein. However Pinchas himself was not yet a kohein when he killed Zimri, as is evident from the fact that, as a reward for this act, God made conferred him with the status of kohein, as God told Moshe," Therefore say: Behold I give him my covenant of peace. And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood" (Bamidbar, 25:13). Why, in fact, didn't Pinchas become a kohein when Aharon and his sons were initiated into the priesthood?
According to the Vilna Gaon, as cited in the Sha'arei Aharon, by Rabbi Aharon Yeshaya Rotter, Pinchas was a minor when Aharon and his sons were anointed as kohanim, and anointment with the shemen hamishchah - the anointing oil - is not effective when done on a minor. The Zohar, however, gives a different reason. Pinchas did not become a kohein earlier, says the Zohar, because, had he been a kohein when he killed Zimri and Kozbi, he would have defiled himself through contact with a human corpse. This explanation is remarkable in that it implies that Pinchas was destined to kill Zimri and Kozbi. What is it in Pinchas' future role among the Jewish people that made it necessary for him to perform this act of zealotry?
King Shlomo, in Koheles (7:20).The standard interpretation of this verse is that it is not possible for a human king to avoid some instance of sin in his life. Interestingly, Rav Saadiah Gaon, in his Emunos VeDeos, or Book of Belief and Opinions, 6:4, explains it differently. He interprets it to mean that no righteous man does good without the possibility of sinning. In other words, everyone has free choice to do good or evil. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer (Responsa, volume 6, no. 59), offers yet another explanation, which is, perhaps, not meant to be taken as peshat, or the simple meaning of the verse, but still carries a profound message (my thanks to my friend Rabbi Baruch Simon for pointing out this explanation of the Chasam Sofer). The Chasam Sofer explains the verse to mean that no righteous person on earth does a good deed without someone criticizing him and saying that it is actually a sin! This was, in fact, the fate of Pinchas, who, as Rashi tells us, was criticized by the people for his act of zealotry, and needed God himself to come to his defense and testify that he did it completely out of pure, holy intentions. Based on this explanation of the Chasam Sofer, we can perhaps now understand why Pinchas had to be the one who performed this act of zealotry.
The rabbis tell us that Pinchas is actually Eliyahu the prophet, who will be the harbinger of the moshiach, or the messiah. The prophet Malachi (3:24) says that God will send Eliyahu before the advent of that great day, and he will restore the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers. In other words, Eilyahu will be the great peacemaker. Why was Pinchas chosen to play this role in Jewish history? Perhaps it is because Pinchas was able to withstand the criticism he received form the people for an act of zealotry that God Himself testified had saved the entire nation from destruction. The plague ended after his act, the people stopped dying, and yet he was still criticized, until God himself defended him Yet, Pinchas went on to become a kohein, and bless the people with love. As Rav Yechiel Moshe Epstein, in his Be'er Moshe, points out from various kabbalistic sources, Pinchas acted purely out of love for God. Love of God necessarily includes love of his people, and this love carried over into Pinchas' role as a kohein, who blessed the people with love, despite al the criticism he received from them. This great love displayed by Pinchas in his act of zealotry would in the future, be used, as Eliyahu, to restore the hearts of the fathers and the children to each other, and, ultimately, to God, thus leading the way to the coming of moshiach, may he come speedily in our time.