At the time of his momentous act of zealotry, Pinchas saw the letters of the Hebrew word "met", meaning "dead", in his mind's eye, and this inspired him to be a barrier of "death". How did he do this? The Zohar, commenting on the lance which Pinchas used to slay Zimri, describes Pinchas as "garbing" himself with this lance in order to mete out justice here on earth so that mercy could be invoked in the parallel regions of Heaven. Pinchas… saw the letter mem fly in the air…

He saw his own name [which has a numerical value of 208] rise heavenwards, and realized that his name had the same numerical value as that of Isaac the patriarch, who personified the attribute of Justice on earth. He also saw the letter mem fly in the air. This letter is an allusion to death - in Hebrew, "mavet".

This allusion has already been commented on: "The woman saw that it was good…she took from its fruit, ate, and gave [to her husband]". (Genesis 3:6) We find here four words commencing with the letters vav tav, and in the middle of these words a word commencing with the letter mem. When you join this letter mem to the word to the four words which commence with the letters vav tav, you get the word "mavet", meaning "death", each time.

In other words "death" is present in all four compass directions. This is what the sages had in mind when they referred to Pinchas' mind's eye as seeing the letter mem "flying" in the air. G‑d had instructed Gabriel to write...the letter tav on the foreheads of the righteous…

By itself, the letter tav [the last letter of the above word meaning "death"] is strongly associated with death, written in blood, as we know from the statement of Rabbi Acha bar Chanina. (Shabbat 55) He tells us that G‑d has never issued a favorable decree and reversed Himself except in a single instance: when G‑d told the angel Gabriel, "Pass in the midst of the city, in the midst of Jerusalem, and mark a sign on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan for all the abominations that are done within it." (Ezekiel 9:4) G‑d had instructed Gabriel to write in ink the letter tav on the foreheads of the righteous so that the divinely appointed forces of destruction should not touch them.

The foreheads of the wicked people, however, were to be marked with the same letter written in blood, so that they would fall victim to the forces of destruction. The ministering angels challenged G‑d on this decision, wanting to know in what way the former were better than the latter, seeing that they had failed to perform the commandment of admonishing their fellow-Jews. G‑d answered these angels that He was well aware that even if the righteous people had admonished their compatriots, it would have been to no avail. To this the angels replied that the fact that G‑d was aware that such admonitions would have proved futile did not absolve the righteous from at least having tried, seeing that they had no way of knowing whether their attempts to admonish the people would prove successful. The final letters in the words "In the beginning G‑d created" combine to make the word Truth

As a result of this, we read in verse 5 of the same chapter: "Then He said to these in my hearing [the prophet's] 'Follow him through the city and strike. Let your eyes neither spare nor show mercy. Old man, young man and maiden, children and women, massacre to utter destruction. But any man on whom is the sign do not approach. And begin from My Sanctuary'. So they began with the old men who were in front of the House." The Talmud says that Rabbi Yossef reads the word "My Sanctuary", in Hebrew "Mikdashay", as "Me-kudashay", meaning "My holy ones", referring to the people who observed all the commandments of the Torah from the letter alef [the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet] to the letter tav [the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet]. (Shabbat 55)

A few lines further on the Talmud questions why the sign chosen for these markings had been the letter tav, and answers that this letter is the first letter of the word "tichyeh", meaning "you will live", as well as the first letter of the word "tamut", meaning "you will die". Shemuel said that the reason is that at that point the merit of the patriarchs had been exhausted and it no longer could be called upon to protect their descendants from G‑d's anger. Rabbi Yochanan, however, then said that the letter tav symbolized that these people could be granted grace only through the merit of the patriarchs. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also on that folio, says that the letter is the final letter in G‑d's "seal", seeing that Rabbi Chanina taught that the "seal" of G‑d is Truth - in Hebrew, "emet". At any rate, we know that the combination of the letters mem and tav spell the word for "death", since there was a deadly plague [in Hebrew, "magefa"], which killed twenty-four thousand Israelites at that time. The letter tav, discussed in the Talmud, is also known to have been written in blood on the forehead of the wicked.

Remember that the creation of the universe proceeded under the parole of "truth", since the final letters in the words "In the beginning G‑d created" [in Hebrew, "Bereishit bara Elokim" (Gen 1:1)] combine to make the word "emet", "truth". At the end of G‑d's creative activities we again find this reference to "truth" when we look at the final letters of the verse "And G‑d saw…" [in Hebrew, "Vayera Elokim et…" (Genesis 1:31)] Pinchas became Elijah, an angel who goes on living forever…

The universe was created for the sake of man, i.e. adam, who represents the tithe of one tenth (in Hebrew, "maaser") of Truth, "emet". ["Adam" in Hebrew is spelled alef, dalet, mem.] The numerical value of the letter mem in Adam's name (40) is 10% of the numerical value of tav (400) in the Hebrew word for "Truth" (emet), and the letter dalet (=4) in Adam's name is one tenth of the letter mem (=40) in the word "emet". The letter alef in "emet" is, of course, irreducible.

The serpent was the first to introduce the concept of lying into the universe by claiming that G‑d had eaten from the Tree of Knowledge before being able to create the universe. Proverbs (16:28) describes the serpent as saying, "A quarrelsome one alienates his friend."

By removing the first letter of the word "emet", alef, all that you are left with is the word "met", meaning "dead". When you remove the first letter from the word "adam", you are left with the word "dam", meaning "blood". Anyone who is able to protest wrongdoing with a chance of success and fails to do so has blood inscribed on his head. Those were the people who, though they are described as having observed the commandments of the Torah "from alef to tav", i.e. "from A to Z", were not pious in the true sense of the word since they failed to admonish the other members of their society. Under such circumstances the letter mem which ought to symbolize a letter from the word for "truth", "emet", symbolizes the word "death", "mavet", instead.

When the Talmud describes their piety in this matter, i.e. "from alef to tav", it merely wants to draw our attention to the missing letter mem in those people's piety. Hence the Angel of Death had unrestricted control even over such Torah-observant people.

This brings us to the meaning of the verse "…He turned away My wrath…." (Num. 25:11) When Pinchas saw the letter mem flying in the air, he took the lance [in Hebrew, "ramach"] to publicly display his jealousy on behalf of G‑d and succeeded in transforming "My (i.e. G‑d's) wrath", in Hebrew "chamati" [spelled chet-mem-tav-yud], with the emphasis on the letters mem-tav [spelling the Hebrew word for "death"] in that word into the other two letters of "chamati", chet-yud [spelling the Hebrew word for "life"].This is why Pinchas became Elijah, an angel who goes on living forever.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]