Pinhas: Zealotry Leads to Shalom with a Broken Leg
We are just a few days away from the 17th of Tammuz, the date that marks the beginning of the fall of Jerusalem, the period of” Beyn hameytzarim”—Between the Straits- that leads up to the 9th of Av. It is part of a series of tragedies surrounding the fall of the first Temple and repeated in some variation with the fall of the Second Temple.
The rabbis question the justice in the destruction of the Temple the first time, and find their answer, form the accusations of the prophets themselves, that the Jewish people had become degenerate.” Why was the first Sanctuary destroyed? Because of three [evil] things which prevailed there: idolatry, immorality, bloodshed” ( Yoma 9b)
But what of the Second Temple ? What had gone wrong. “ Why was the second Sanctuary destroyed, seeing that in its time they were occupying themselves with Torah, [observance of] precepts, and the practice of charity? Because therein prevailed hatred without cause- sinat hinam. That teaches you that groundless hatred is considered as of even gravity with the three sins of idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed together .”
What is this “ groundless hatred” that the sages were referring to?
We know that this was the period of the “kanaim”, a movement that Josephus placed on equal footing in importance with the Pharisees, Saducees, and Essene, the movement that led the revolt against Rome, the movement that led, then to the very destruction of the Temple. According to Josephus, they were in principle, similar to the Pharisees, but added an absolute demand for Liberty, with God as their only authority. They were also known as “ Biryonim” in Rabbinic sources, which means, despite their noble aspiration, they were ,very simply, boors and ruffians. Yet another term, for them or their affiliates, was “Sicarii”, which means “ dagger men”, as they were, we are told, won’t to mingle in the crowds and assassinate anyone that went against their opinions.
Now, a first reading of our Torah portion would show that to be a “ kanai”, a zealot for God is a very good thing.
At the last portion, the children of Israel, after their blessing by Balaam, are now defeated by their weakness for exotic women who lead them in pagan revelry. One of the leaders, Zimri, takes up with a Midianite princess, Cozbi, right in front of Moses as a terrible plague breaks loose.
Moses and the leaders are dumbfounded; their only response is to burst out in tears as they see the community as a whole backsliding.
Something must be done. God calls for action; Moses calls for action. But no one does anything. Suddenly, Pinhas( Phineas), alone, rushes into action, and single-handedly slaughters the chief Israelite and his temptress.
That was at the very end of last week’s portion. This week, as we open Pinhas, we have words of praise and blessing from God to Pinhas, for he “ turned My wrath away from the people of Israel, for he was very jealous ( bekano et kinati) for my sake.”
Pinhas is rewarded with a great prize: Behold, I give you my Briti-shalom, G-d’s covenant of peace. It would seem to be an ideal prize.
. The Sages ask, though, why should he have been given this “Covenant of Peace” from God on high? Because he had earned the anger, not the approval of the leaders. He had taken the law into his own hands and they were ready to expel him for it. That is the explanation for God’s intervention. But it is an unusual intervention and an unusual blessing for an act of killing!
The sages note that the word Shalom is written in the Torah-text in an odd manner—the letter Vav in Shalom is cut in the middle! The peace is, so to say, incomplete
Thus, the Ktav Sofer ( Rabbi Shmuel Benyamin Schreiber) explained it: It is true that sometimes, we must take drastic action to save a situation; nevertheless, we must very quickly step back from it to a secure and solid basis, which is peace, the foundation and secret of all blessings.
Pinhas, by tradition, is said to have lived on in the spirit of Elijah, who is the subject of our Haftarah today as well.
Elijah lives in a day when the leadership of the people of Israel have abandoned their faith and persecuted the few loyal followers of the G-d of Israel. His king is married to the pagan Jezebel , who has persecuted the Israelite faith and installed Phoenician Baal as the official god.. He is frustrated and depressed, and wants to die as he sees everything around him failing. He is called, however, to run to the Sinai,( Horeb) to the same mountain of Moses, where he dwells in a cave as did Moses after the Golden Calf as he awaited the visionof God.
God calls to him: What are you here for?
Elijah now declares his loyalty, Kano kaneti , the same words used to describe Pinhas. The two are one and the same soul. The childen of Israel have abandoned the covenant, destroyed the sanctuaries, killed the prophets, and only he alone is left of all of them. Kano kaneti.I have been exceptionally zealous.
The word for “ jealous” in Hebrew, is much more powerful than the current English usage. It is to be understood rather, in its original root, “Zealous”, filled with a burning drive and passion that brooks no half-way measures.
Is this an endorsement of zealotry as in the sense of enthusiasm, or zealotry in the sense of extremism?
In the same way, Elijah declares, I have been very zealous. It is true, in Elijah’s day, the situation called for drastic action. Yet, Elijah is given a very different vision. There is wind, powerful enough to smash boulders, but God is not in the wind. Then earthquake, yet no God, and then fire , yet again, G-d is not present. Then, there is a kol demamah dakah, a still small voice. In that silent voice, only there is G-d found.God is not in any physical manifestation, just as Moses, in his day, discovered that God was not visible in any physical manifestation. Now Elijah steps out of the cave, he knows God is present, and God repeats the very same question: What are you here for?
Elijah is put in the position of Moses—he could now be as great as Moses!
Then, Elijah gives the exact same answer as before: Kano Kaneti- word for word. God now gives him his instructions, anoint this, appoint this, and then, “appoint Elsiha ben Shafat of Abel Mecholah to be prophet in your place.” !
Elijah is told now to anoint Elisha to be prophet in his place! Elijah is fired!
Moses pleaded to God at the Golden Calf on behalf of his people, but Elijah could only kvetch!
The commentators note: he has not learned his lesson- and “ Are you here still with the spirit of revenge.”
That is G-d’s response to zealotry. That was the lesson in the fire and earthquake: G-d was in the silent voice, because, again as Metzudat David states, Chaftez Chesed Hu, He seeks lovingkindness!
True, extraordinary times call for extraordinary acts—but beware of zealotry for the sake of zealotry!. Pinchas must be tamed by the covenant of peace.
As for Elijah?
You now that he comes around every year to the seder and to the Havdalah; he also comes around, it is said, to every brit. A legend states that it is Elijah’s punishment—because he doubted his people’s loyalty to the covenant, he is condemned to be present at every brit, every time a new Jewish baby joins the covenant. Hence, the Chair of Elijah at every brit.
The later prophets turn Elijah’s character around and the Sages affirm this . He must come back to make peace in the world, for it is said, "Behold I send to you Elijah the prophet. . .and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers" (Malachi 3:23-24 and Mishnah Eduyoth 8:7)
These past weeks, for the people of Israel, have been a very trying week. Three teenagers were murdered by terrorists at the active incitement of Hamas leadership. We also discovered that Israelis, too ,are not perfect and that a gang of would-be “heroes” murdered a Palestinian youngster. So far, however, we do know that there is no organization behind them and there is no movement of zealots that threatens to take over the Israeli people as has happened to the Palestinians, as has been happening in Syria and Iraq. It seems, moreover, that these criminals were themselves simply soccer gangsters, the lowest of the low. It would indicate that Israel does have a serious internal problem, one of its own lost youth, that has nothing to do with war and peace , or national interests but that is to be dealt with as an educational and social issue..
We have faith, that overall, the people of Israel, standard bearers for the rest of the Jewish world are able to control themselves and restrain themselves from “ sinat Hinam”, from causeless hatred. We have faith that Israeli society reflects that ideal.
When the three Israelis were kidnapped, Palestinian social media were full of tweets of celebration. When the one Palestinian youngster was murdered, Israelis as a whole hung their heads in sorrow.
Hundreds of rockets have been fired indiscriminately from Gaza in these last weeks alone, fired openly by Hamas, without any warnings. The Israelis have retaliated, attacking the specific headquarter and bunkers of those launching the attack. The difference has been, that when the Israelis are ready to attack a house, if there are innocent civilians inside, the Israelis pick up the phone, call in advance, the people leave the house, and then the Israelis blow up an empty house, full of munitions.
It is Israeli trucks that are bringing food, gas and fuel to the Gaza strip in the midst of fighting. It is Israeli hospitals that are still treating Gazans despite the fighting.
How it will resolve itself, we don’t know. What we do hope and pray, is that the people of Israel can continue to defend themselves without being tempted to go the way of Pinchas. We pray that the zealots in Gaza, in Syria, in Iraq learn to love their own children more than they hate us.