Does Judaism Encourage Zealotry?
It's a disturbing question: What, if anything, should we learn from Pinchas? How are we supposed to understand the sheer violence of this Parsha?
By all standards, Pinchas' zealotry stands as the total and complete antithesis of what we would call Jewish Values.
Of course, some might protest that my question arises from a misunderstanding of the Torah and Jewish Values. There are those who have suggested that the peace-loving pacifism that colors our perspective today is inauthentic – a veritable distortion of the Torah. Perhaps, they argue, the political orientation of Yiddishkeit is, at its core, more zealous, violent and aggressive than our modern sensitivities can stomach? Perhaps we only recoil from such acts as a result of many long years of exile?
To that, I would argue staunchly, that nothing could be further from the truth. Chazal (יבמות עט ב) famously quote from Dovid HaMelech that there are three trademark characteristics of the Jewish nation: אמר שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים – “They are merciful, they are shamefaced, and they perform acts of kindness.”
This Gemara is not an outlier. Consider the well known Mishna in Avos (5:19): עין טובה, ורוח נמוכה, ונפש שפלה, מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו – “One who has a good eye, a humble spirit and a moderate appetite is of the disciples of Abraham Avinu.” And of course, the “Great Principle of the Torah” is to Love one's neighbor as oneself.
There are countless such examples throughout Tanach, the Talmud and the pages of Rabbinic writing advancing the reality that the Torah is a Toras Chessed. As such, Pinchas represents a violent response that must offend our sensitivities. For a Jew to rise up, take a spear in his hand and skewer a sinner – even a public sinner – is unthinkable. And yet, Pinchas does just that:
...He took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. (Bamidbar 25:8)
Somehow, his violent outburst not only evades Heavenly retribution, but earns him eternal reward!
Therefore say: Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace and it will be to him, and to his children after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood.
All of this leaves us with the question: How are we supposed to understand Pinchas?
To begin, we'll consider a story from the Talmud (ברכות כח ב) which is appropriate to the three weeks. It's the account of the dying moments of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the leader of the surviving Jewish community following the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash.
When Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai fell ill his students entered to visit him. When he saw them, he began to cry... They asked him: Why are your crying? He said to them: I cry in fear of heavenly judgement... I have two paths before me, one of Gan Eden and one of Gehennon, and I do not know on which they are leading me; how will I not cry? Immediately before he died, he said to his students: ...Prepare a chair for Chezekiyahu, the King of Yehuda, who is coming from the upper world to accompany me.
We might wonder how it could be that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was so unsure as to his final destination? Surely he knew that he had lived a decent and God fearing life?! But Chazal tell us that at the time of the destruction of Yerushalayim, when Rabbi Yochanan was smuggled out of the city and presented to Vespasian, he was granted a request. In that moment of mercy from the Romans, Rabbi Yochanan famously asked תן לי יבנה וחכמיה – Please spare the city of Yavneh and its sages. Notably, he did not ask for Yerushalayim to be saved from destruction.
This decision haunted him until his dying moments. Perhaps if he would only have asked, the Beis HaMikdash would still be standing? On the other hand, perhaps such an audacious request would have left him with nothing; effectively ending all hope for Judaism forever.
It was his decision alone to determine the fate of all of Jewish history – and for the remainder of his life, he was never sure if he had chosen correctly.
But the story of his life ends with him telling his students to make way for Chezkiyahu HaMelech who would be escorting him to the upper worlds. What does this detail add to the narrative?
It's a strange epilogue, especially considering that Chezkiyahu and Rabbi Yochanan represented totally different perspectives on this exact question! When Chezkiyahu was faced with the choice of surrendering to Assyria or fighting for Yerushalayim, he chose to never surrender, and Hashem saved the city miraculously! Perhaps Chezkiyahu is coming because Rabbi Yochanan made the wrong choice?
The Vilna Gaon (אמרי נועם שם) explains on the contrary: Chezkiyahu is coming to accompany Rabbi Yochanan because both ensured the continuation of Torah.
Mori V'Rabbi, Rav Moshe Stav suggested that this is exactly the point of this whole story. Chezkiyahu and Rabbi Yochanan had completely different political strategies. But they shared a commonality of purpose. They disagreed as to the “How”, but were 100% aligned as to the “Why”.
Imagine then, that someone would tell us that we, the Jewish people should adopt the political pacifism of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Or imagine that someone would argue that we should emulate the nationalistic pride of Chezkiyahu. Both would be wrong.
Chazal are teaching us that there is little of substance to learn from the political ideology of our leaders throughout history. The stories that the Tanach and Talmud tell us are written exclusively for the values system they represent.
And the same is true for Pinchas. We have nothing to learn from his actions, but plenty to gain from his motivation: He was completely devoid of any personal anger, bias or agenda. A fact to which Hashem Himself attests – בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי – “Pinchas did this for Me”.
The Kotzker (עמוד האמת ע׳ מב) notes that Moshe Rabbeinu was deeply concerned about the lessons our nation might learn from Pinchas. Indeed it is in the context of Pinchas slaying Zimri that Moshe davens to Hashem to appoint a successor to lead the people after him. But Moshe has known for quite some time that he would not enter the Land of Israel. Why is he demanding a succession plan now? The Kotzker explains:
The events of Pinchas disturbed Moshe. Before Pinchas killed Zimri, Moshe knew that Hashem would appoint a special person, to fill his shoes. And then Pinchas came along. He was filled with passion, with Kedusha, with Mesiras Nefesh; all of the qualities that one needs in a leader. But he was also zealot; a Kanai. And a Jewish leader needs to look at another person in the midst of doing the wrong thing, and not take revenge.
So Pinchas is written out of Jewish history, with barely another mention of him throughout the rest of Tanach. Clearly his actions should never be emulated. So why does the Torah record his story at all? Because we have a tremendous amount to learn from his motivations, even if his methodology is never to be repeated.
Perhaps the greatest lesson for us to extract from the horror and tragedy of the Pinchas saga is the value of differentiating between our political orientations and our value systems. And this is the Torah's message: פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן – Pinchas, the zealot, is the grandson of Aharon HaKohen, the great lover of peace. Grandfather and grandson believed in exactly the same value system, and their difference in methodology was simply cosmetic.
This Parsha comes as the Three Weeks enter, to remind us that the Unity of our national purpose is infinitely more important than our political opinions. With Hashem's help this will be another step forward in eradicating the Sinas Chinam within us, in fulfillment of the dream of Rav Kook (הראיה א קמ):
האהבה היא תחושת האחדות יש מי שאחד עם גופו יש מי שאחד עם משפחתו יש מי שאחד עם עמו ויש מי שאחד עם העולם כולו
Love is the feeling of unity. There are those who are one with their body, Those who are one with their family, Those who are one with their nation And then there are those Who are one with the entirely of the world.