Zealotry, Good and Bad

Pinehas By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 25, 2013 / 5773 | Philosophy

At the end of Parashat Balak, we are introduced to the extreme character of Pinehas. The Israelites once again stray from God and Torah as they engage in the cult of Baal Peor, pursuing Moabite women and engaging in idolatrous practice. Pinehas, the son of Eleazar, is witness to an Israelite man engaging in lewd behavior with a Midianite woman. Rather than turning to Moshe as the leader of the People, Pinehas takes justice into his own hands and tragically murders the Israelite man and Midianite woman. At the beginning of this week’s parashah, Pinehas is surprisingly rewarded by God with an everlasting “covenant of peace.” How are we to understand the behavior of this zealot? Even more disturbing is the sense that his vigilante behavior is divinely rewarded. And to what extent is he similar to another zealot in our history, Eliyahu Hanavi (Elijah the Prophet)?

Shmuel Avidor HaCohen explains,

Rabbinic commentary draws a direct line between the characters of Pinhas and Eliyahu HaNavi. The rabbis teach: “Pinhas—this is Eliyahu!” The figure of Eliyahu HaNavi appears, on the one hand, as a zealot, who is zealous for the cause of God. We see this within his persistent, relentless and zealous behavior. Eliyahu himself declares, “For I am zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts” (I Kings 19:10). On the other hand, it is also said of Eliyahu, “Behold, I send you Eliyahu HaNavi before the coming of the great and awesome day of God. He will return the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents’” (Malachi 3:23–24). In declaring that Pinhas is Eliyahu HaNavi, the sages of Israel teach us about the essence of zealotry. Zealotry for God is a good thing but it must lead to a positive and constructive goal. The zealotry of Pinhas is blessed because he is given a “covenant of peace” and the zealotry of Eliyahu concludes in the realization of peace between children and their parents. Only zealotry such as this can be blessed. (Likrat Shabbat [translated from the Hebrew]169)

While zealotry too often leads to destructive ends, Shmuel Avidor HaCohen reminds us that such consequences are not preordained. “Healthy” zealotry can and must lead to positive ends. Pinehas, who demonstrates both justice and violence, must learn to balance his behavior with a divine dose of peace. God does not reward Pinehas arbitrarily. His reward is the antidote to his earlier behavior, and the hope is that he will learn from his past. It is a similar situation with Eliyahu Hanavi. Eliyahu has little tolerance for the wayward behavior of the Israelites living in his day—to the point that he flees to the Sinai and declares himself the lone loyalist to the God of Israel. The prophet Malachi blesses Eliyahu with the perfect antidote. For, ultimately, it is Eliyahu who will heal familial wounds—bringing children and parents close to each other—thereby actualizing the perfect tikkun (repair) to the zealousness of Eliyahu’s younger days. Positive outcomes can be the fruit of zealotry and passion. It is up to us to guide such gifted and energetic personalities in the “right” direction.

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