A Time For Zeal

People who translate zeal for God into violence must normally possess the qualities and ethics worthy of a covenant of peace.

Commentary on Parashat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

When Alexander the Great took his sword and cut King Gordius’ knot, the question of who was to rule Asia disappeared. One slice of the sword and all doubts were removed. Most issues facing us as Jews in the modern world are knotted with anxieties that call forth a wish for the simple solution.

Parashat Pinchas puts the problem plainly before us: When the future of the nation appears to be at stake, what type of leader shall be admired?

As the people of Israel camp east of the Jordan River in Midianite territory, Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron and son of the incumbent High Priest, upon finding an Israelite and his Midianite paramour in flagrante delicto, executed them with one thrust of the spear. For this deed, Pinchas and his descendants are awarded permanent priesthood in Israel and a covenant of peace with God.

Moses, who had originally called for the death penalty for anyone found “attaching himself” to the local deity, fails to respond directly to the unfortunate Israelite’s death, acting afterwards only as a mouthpiece for God’s praise of Pinhas. And therein lies the problem: The acknowledged leader of the community has been outshone in a time of crisis by a hothead whom the Lord praises for being “zealous for Me.”

Why should Pinchas receive such adulation? A Hasidic commentary reads: “Pinchas’ merit lay in his willingness to assume responsibility when Moses, Aaron and the 70 elders were slow to act.” But this assumes that Moses and the established leaders were wrong to act slowly. Such wishfulness for the solution of the sword — whether in international issues or the go-it-alone politics that plague our communities — contains within itself a fateful flaw.

Reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.


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