Zealot? To what extreme

TThis article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of  Rabbi’s  Yissachar Frand, Yossi Bilus, Berel Wein, Asher Hurzberg,  Yonnasan Zweig, Lable Lamm

Mets! Yankee! Mets! Yankees! Root, root, root for the home team and if they don’t win it’s a shame. If you’re a diehard fan, your team means everything to you. New York has two professional baseball teams and for the most part the city is divided, rooting for either of the two. Does one remember those “I hate Yankees” chants? How about when as a child you passed by, not just once, but two kids who were discussing how the Mets had a lousy team, and without thinking twice chimed in and interrupted their conversation with a growling sneer defending your beloved Mets. Yes, yes, you were a little Mets zealot weren’t you?

However, getting autographed baseballs, collecting baseball cards, and wearing the cap or team jersey is put aside once childhood ends. It was nice, but now it’s time to move on to more serious stuff. Well, for most of us, that is. The buck stops there. For some though it doesn’t end quite yet. I know a delivery man who works for a jewelry company who is probably 40 or 50 years old and is still wearing his Mets cap and jersey, and if you dare tell him that his team is not good, he’ll stop and argue with you. “What did you say?” He’ll respond with a thick Brooklyn accent, even though he’s born and bred in Queens, with his eyes popping out no less. If you aggravate him a little too much he might even use violence. He is not so different than those Soccer fans in Europe who brawl at the stadiums or bars being the zealot fans that they are. Many have ended up at the hospital with injuries, some serious, and some have died just for being a zealot to the “cause”.

In this week’s parsha we read how Pinchas was enraged with the actions of Zimri ben Salul, who challenged Moshe’s authority by taking a non-Jewish woman into the tent to have an illicit relationship in front of the entire nation. Pinchas was so furious with the audacity of Zimri that after receiving permission from Moshe, he entered the tent and speared the two sinners to death. His brazen act of zealotry was praised by G-d and he was rewarded greatly.

Is being a zealot good or bad? To what extent, if we have the green light, can we practice being a zealot? Where do we draw the line with being a zealot? Why is this act connected to Aharon his grandfather, a man of peace? What peace is there in Pinchas’s act? And interestingly, why is the vov in the word shalom in the parsha split? It is also interesting to note that there is a concept brought down that Eliyahu and Pinchas are deeply connected. In fact, Eliyahu is a reincarnate of Pinchas. Let us see some connections.

There are pluses and minuses in taking on the cause and waiving the kinah-zealot flag. Pinchas’s deed evokes many associations-courage, decisiveness and religious passion are several that come to mind-but peace hardly seems one of them. Pinchas, after all, killed two people. True, what he did was condoned by Torah law, and his doing so saved many lives, but still, one does not usually think of homicide as a peaceful act. Some have the custom to remove metal and steel utensils before we recite bircat hamazone for they are a symbol of weaponry and war and G-d hates bloodshed. Rabbi Yissachar Frand read once a quote which he thought was profound from Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel in the early 1970s. Golda Meir once said that she could forgive the Arabs for killing the Jews, but she could not forgive the Arabs for forcing the Jews to kill Arabs. Killing, even in a justified defensive war, ultimately has an effect on the national soul. King David was denied building the Bet Hamikdash-Temple for he had b
lood on his hands. His son King Shlomo, “a peacetime king” took the mantle.

Pinchas is not an overly popular figure in Jewish life and among his own generation. The people of Israel were angered by his act of violence in killing the head of the tribe of Shimon without giving the matter due judicial process. It is because of this type of murmuring that the Lord Himself, so to speak, blesses Pinchas personally and grants him the gift of priesthood and of peace.

Pinchas and his behavior become the exception and not the rule in Jewish life and tradition. Zealotry is a very difficult characteristic to gauge correctly. And it is noteworthy therefore to emphasize that we do not find any other further act of holy zealotry mentioned in the Torah or approved of by Jewish tradition How much are personal quirks involved in such zealous behavior? Jewish history and society is littered by the victims of religious zealotry who were felled by personal attacks clothed in the guise of religious piety and zealotry.

The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking others. The rationale for Bnei Yisroel’s criticism of Pinchas is based upon what is known as the “reformed smoker syndrome”; very often, the most rabid anti-smoker is a reformed smoker. In an attempt to rid himself of some negative habit or trait, a person may react very negatively to others who exhibit the same trait. This person’s reaction is fueled by the fear that seeing others exhibiting the same negative trait which he once exhibited will rekindle his own connection to it. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas in killing Zimri. Because of this, it is obvious that only God, so to speak, could save Pinchas from unwarranted criticism and public disapproval. But in doing so, God, again so to speak, warns us of the dangers of zealotry. He will not step in again to rescue the zealot from public and historical disapproval.


There is an interesting comment in the Midrash by the incident of Eliyahu at Mount Carmel (Melachim I Chapter 18). Eliyahu challenged the prophets of Baal to bring down a fire from Heaven to accept their offerings. They were unable to do this. Eliyahu succeeded in bringing down a fire from Heaven to accept his own offering. All the people fell on their faces, prostrated themselves, and declared, “Hashem, He is G-d.” This is the famous proclamation that reverberates throughout our synagogues at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

The narration in the book of Melachim continues. “Eliyahu said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal! Let none of them escape!’ So they seized them. Eliyahu took them down to the Kishon Brook and slaughtered them there.” (Melachim 1 18:40) The wicked Queen Izevel heard what Eliyahu did to her prophets and sent a message pledging to do the exact same thing to him that he did to the prophets of Baal.

Eliyahu fled and went into hiding. Eliyahu, with his zealous persona, was not able to tolerate any wrong doing by the Jewish people to the extent that he complained to G-d about them. “I have acted with great zeal for Hashem, G-d of Legions, because the Children of Israel have forsaken Your Covenant; they have razed Your altars and have killed Your prophets by the sword, so that I alone have remained, and they now seek to take my life,” he said. (Pasuk 10)

The Midrash comments that G-d chastised Eliyahu for not talking properly about His people. “Do not say about My People ‘they have not kept Your Covenant!’ Do not talk that way about Jews! You should have said, “They are Your children, descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.”

Rav Mordechai Katz, of Blessed Memory, interprets the Midrash. In spite of the fact that the acts of zealotry of Pinchas / Eliyahu were noble acts and in spite of the fact that Pinchas received the priesthood for it, the acts were not perfect acts. Pinchas / Eliyahu was too indicting and condemning of the Jewish people.

There was never a more ‘for the sake of Heaven’ zealot in the history of the world than Eliyahu the prophet. He is the paragon of the proper form of zealotry. G-d rewarded him for it. But even that zealot was less than perfect because at the same time that he defended the Honor of G-d, he was too harsh in his attitude toward the Jewish people. The Jews had to be admonished, true, but he was just a little too strong. He should not have said “They have forsaken Your Covenant (Bris).”

We are told that the prophet Eliyahu attends every circumcision (Bris) of Jewish babies. Part of the ritual is to reserve a chair for Eliyahu. The reason why he must attend every Bris is a decree from G-d. Eliyahu must attend every Bris in order to recognize that he was wrong. Klal Yisrael does keep the Covenant (Bris).

Nothing in religious life is more risk-laden than zeal, and nothing is more compelling than the truth that G-d taught Eliyahu, that G-d is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice that turns the sinner from sin. As for vengeance, that belongs to G-d alone.

Zealotry is such a dangerous trait that even the noble Pinchas / Eliyahu can overdo it, by uttering just a single word that is too strong. This demonstrates how delicate and careful one must be when wielding the sword of zealotry.

We meet Pinchas again later in Jewish history, again at a moment of personal tragedy. He is the High Priest and head of the Sanhedrin at the time of Yiftach, the judge of Israel. Yiftach has made a foolish vow that whatever or whoever comes forth first from his house to greet him upon his return from the successful war that he waged to save Israel from the oppression of Bnei Ammon will be sacrificed to G-d.

The daughter of Yiftach, not knowing of her father’s vow, rushes out of the house to welcome home the returning hero. Eventually Yiftach fulfills his vow and kills her on the altar. This entire horrible story could have been averted.

The rabbis in the Talmud tell us that Yiftach could have had the vow annulled retroactively by appearing before Pinchas and his court and requesting such an annulment. But ego and hubris interfere, even at the cost of the life of one’s own child. Yiftach refused to humble himself – after all, he is the leader of Israel – to appear before Pinchas and ask for the annulment.

Even though Pinchas is aware of the vow, he also refuses to lower himself – after all, he is the High Priest and the head of the Sanhedrin – to travel to Yiftach to affect the annulment. As the Talmud ruefully observes, because of this display of personal pique and ego, an innocent person was killed. Pinchas’s reputation is therefore tarnished by this incident. Perhaps this is another reason that we do not find the zealotry of Pinchas repeated and complimented again in the Torah.

Pinchas gave his name to the parsha in which Moshe asks God to appoint a successor. Rav Menahem Mendel, the Rebbe of Kotzk, asked why Pinchas, hero of the hour, was not appointed instead of Joshua. His answer was that a zealot cannot be a leader. Leadership requires patience, forbearance and respect for due process. The zealots within besieged Jerusalem in the last days of the Second Temple played a significant part in the city’s destruction. They were more intent on fighting one another than the Romans outside the city walls.

Well, zealotry is not all that bad. Mind you, if you will, although we are very cautious of the zealot syndrome as we have so convincingly have tried to convey. However, there is a crucial lesson that we can learn from zealotry. First and foremost, it is the epitome of individuality and creativity. Therefore it’s a fundamental part of growth. We have to stand back and marvel at the magnitude of the accomplishment of Pinchas! All of Israel was at risk! We were hemorrhaging badly. Someone needed to stop the bleeding. The Midrash relates the gravity of the situation and the value of the deed done by Pinchas. However there’s a louder point here. The whole plague was started like a wildfire by one person, and it was extinguished by the heroism of one man. Look at the power invested in the individual!

It may be hard for us to believe this in the abstract but we live it concretely every day! Traffic is backed up for miles. Ambulances and stretchers are rushed to the scene. Lives are ruined and hundreds of thousands are inconvenienced due to the loss of valuable work time, missed appointments and airplane flights. Why? One foolish person was engaged in distracted driving, multitasking, absorbed in texting during the morning commute. Look at the power any individual has to be destructive. About this King Solomon wrote in Kohelet, “One sinner destroys a lot of good!” It’s easy to be destructive. It’s harder to be constructive. It takes months and years to build a house and with one match all is lost. It takes years to develop a trusting relationship and with one word or a single betrayal all can be undone! It’s hard for us to imagine the power of the average individual to affect good like Pinchas did! Rebbe Nachman from Breslov said, “If you believe you have the ability to destroy something then you must also believe that you have the capacity to correct it.”

As is the case every week, we have to find out what we can learn from the holy Torah and apply it to our everyday life. What can we possibly learn from Pinchas / Eliyahu and the foreign concept of being a zealot without getting into trouble?

Rabbi Yossi Bilus mentioned something that would shed some light on how zealousness can be applicable in our lives today. Unfortunately, this occurs all too often in our circles. In his neighborhood in Flatbush, a predominantly Orthodox community, there was one Jewish storeowner whose shop was open on Shabbat. Congregants from the neighboring shuls would pass by after services and the non-observant Jew would be working attending customers. A little while later, though, through persuasions from individuals from the community, the store owner closed his shop on Shabbat.

The baseball fan will stop and argue that his team is the best because he’s a zealot. He is a Mets or Yankees diehard fan. “How can you put down my team?” he would say and feel with his heart. It’s his duty. Perhaps we, as well, being fans of Judaism , have to take the initiative. We should approach, in a pleasant, diplomatic way, and persuade the store owner to do the right thing. If the person is unapproachable or reluctant to close his store on Shabbat, a good barometer that we are a proper zealot would be to feel pained by the incident. After all, we are all in it together. We have to feel bad that his store is open on a holy day, that people are eating non-kosher, driving on Shabbat or even talking in shul, because if not, we’re not good fans of the game called Judaism.

This is where we have to step up to the plate. There is absolutely no need to throw rocks at cars that are driving on Shabbat. But a caring attitude and the ability to approach someone in a pleasant, nice way are vital, and this is the modern day zealot.

Rabbi Asher Hurzberg relates a story about a friend who is now retired and living in Israel. For twenty eight years he was a teacher in the New York public school system. Every week he would invite Jewish kids to his house for Shabbat meals. Through the course of his tenure as teacher he successfully convinced many Jewish public school boys to transfer to Yeshiva. This teacher is a modern day zealot.

Zealotry requires the love of G-d; however, it also requires the knowledge of how to use that love correctly. We New Yorkers often have a nonchalant attitude and we don’t get involved even though many times we should. And if we do get involved we invoke the tool of the zealot in a very brazen and forceful, angry way. This has to be corrected.

How striking! Pinchas’s zealotry outwardly appeared to be the antithesis of shalom. However, G d explicitly attached Pinchas’s name to Aaron, the gentlest and most peace-loving man that Israel knew. Aaron is the “lover of peace and pursuer of peace, one who loves humanity and brings them close to Torah.” G d was attesting to Pinchas’s true character and temperament.

This is symbolized by the unusual way the word “peace,” shalom, is written in the Torah at this juncture. The Mesoratic text (handed down from generation to generation all the way from Sinai) teaches us that the letter vav in this word is split in the middle. It is thus written almost like two yuds placed one on top of the other.

How strange. Why the deviation from the way the letter vav is customarily written, as one unbroken stroke?

The commentaries teach us that the letter vav, which is used as a prefix to mean “and,” implies chibur, connectedness. Vav never stands alone; it is always attached as a prefix to another word.

We mortals stand upright like the letter vav, reflecting our divine mission to connect heaven and earth, becoming the conduit of Hashem’s bountiful goodness on this earth while reflecting His heavenly values in our day-to-day lives. Those values are caring and kindness to the highest level, which is seemingly unreachable for a true zealot, and are hard to achieve. However, the effort is imperative and reaching out can get miraculous results.

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