We know that we are meant to learn something about our own lives from everything that happens in the Torah. But when it comes to Parashat Pinchas, it’s hard to know how to find a common denominator with the protagonist, who, in a burst of righteous indignation, killed a couple of people while they were publicly violating the Torah. Not many of us are called upon to take such an extreme action, so what does the story of Pinchas really teach us?

Shem miShmuel tells us that in order to better understand Pinchas the Zealot, we have to look back to Cain and Abel. As we know, Abel was a retiring kind of person, shy and bashful, who thought nothing of himself and only wanted to serve the Creator. Cain was just the opposite. His outgoing nature could be used in a good way, as when he decided to bring a sacrifice to G‑d (his brother Abel only did so when he saw that Cain was doing it). Or, it could be used in a bad way, as when he killed his brother. When used properly, Cain’s approach is called "raising one’s heart in the service of G‑d." Combined with humility, it works wonders; when combined with arrogance, it’s deadly.

According to the Zohar, Pinchas had the same soul root as Cain.

According to the Zohar, Pinchas had the same soul root as Cain. We know this because one who has killed cannot become a Cohen, and Pinchas was not made a Cohen at the same time as the rest of his family, since he was from Cain who killed Abel.

His service (like Cain’s) consisted of "raising one’s heart in the service of G‑d." Like Cain, he took the initiative and served G‑d in the way that made sense to him. In this case, though, Pinchas didn’t just "raise his heart" to assuage his own anger, but in order to do G‑d’s will. In so doing, he rectified Cain’s transgression and was ultimately granted priesthood like the rest of his family.

Interestingly, two other people before Pinchas tried to rectify Cain’s sin, without succeeding. Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Abihu, tried to take the initiative by presenting their own incense offering to G‑d. In so doing, they hoped to achieve the ultimate rectification of Cain’s transgression, which involved taking the initiative in approaching G‑d without proper humility. However, extraneous spiritual forces interfered, and they lost their lives in the attempt.

Kabbala teaches that when Pinchas succeeded, Nadav and Abihu returned and were transmigrated into his soul.

Hence a lesson for us:

If we want to "raise our heart"...we must be sure that it’s only for G‑d.

If we want to "raise our heart" – take the initiative – we must be sure that it’s only for G‑d. Any impurity in our motivation can have drastic consequences. When we do what we are told by G‑d, even if our own motivation isn’t pure, were safe. When we do things on our own, our motivation must be perfect.

[Excerpted from "Inner Lights from Jerusalem!" based on the Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne.]