Parashat Balak ends with bad happenings for Bnei Yisrael. Moabite women are sent into the Jewish camps to seduce Jewish men, attempting to lure them away from Hashem to Ba’al. Part of Bnei Yisrael succumbs to the Moabite women, and Hashem is angry at their actions, so He commands for Moshe to kill the Nesi’im, leaders of the tribes. This, Hashem says, will abate His anger. However, Zimri a Nasi of Shimon, still acts inappropriately with Cozbi of Midian, so Pinechas, the son of Elazar and the grandson of Aharon, takes initiative and kills Zimri and Cozbi with a single spear. In Parshat Pinechas, we are told that Hashem is pleased with Pinechas’ action, and decides to reward him with everlasting Kehunah, priesthood, and a Brit Shalom, covenant of peace. But what is a “covenant of peace,” and why does Pinechas deserve a reward of peace for a violent action?
Many explanations are given by various Mefarshim. One view states that Pinechas by nature was not a violent person, and was probably hesitant to take a spear and kill two people. Hashem’s Brit Shalom was a blessing to Pinechas that he should henceforth be involved in peaceful situations so he will not need to act violently and out of his nature to restore order. The Netziv elaborates on this and says that Pinechas was traumatized from killing two people. Normally, someone who becomes traumatized from any experience changes as a person for the worse. By bestowing a Brit Shalom upon Pinechas, Hashem assures Pinechas that his life will be peaceful, and that this killing will not negatively affect him in the long run.
The Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni take a different approach. After Pinechas killed a prestigious member of Bnei Yisrael, Sheivet Shimon and Zimri’s family became very angry at Pinechas, and wanted to avenge Zimri by killing Pinechas. Hashem’s blessing of peace means that Hashem will prevent anyone from hurting Pinechas, and that no one will act violently towards him in revenge.
Rashi explains that Pinechas killed Zimri and Cozbi without gaining permission from Hashem beforehand, doing it because he thought it fell within the lines of what Hashem had told Moshe to do (kill the Nesi’im). Through this “covenant of peace” from Hashem, Pinechas is assured that Hashem approved of the killing, that it was the right thing to do.
Sforno presents an interesting and unique approach to this question. Sforno says that the Brit Shalom means that Pinechas will be protected from the Malach HaMavet, and he will therefore never die. This synthesizes quite well with the view of Chazal that Pinechas and Eliyahu HaNavi are the same person, as Eliyahu, according to most Mefarshim, never died. Chazal derive this connection from the fact that Pinechas and Eliyahu are the only two people in Tanach described as “Kanai,” “zealous.”
While Pinechas derives his fame from the incident with Zimri and Cozbi, there is another example of Pinechas’ desire for peace later in Tanach. Towards the end of Sefer Yehoshu’a, Bnei Yisrael want to attack Reuven, Gad, and part of Menashe for supposedly building a Mizbei’ach on the east bank of the Jordan River for Avodah Zarah. Pinechas leads a peaceful delegation to investigate the matter, and as it turns out, the Mizbei’ach is merely a monument marking the equal standing of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe within Bnei Yisrael. We learn from Pinechas that we need to take action when necessary, but that we also need to act calmly and peacefully.