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03.07.2018 11:20    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  pinchas  

On Zealotry and Wisdom

Parashat Pinchas begins by saying:  “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by zealously displaying My passion among them, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion” (Num. 25:11).  Kin’ah, the Hebrew word for passion or zealotry, appears three times in this verse, and Pinchas is perceived as having substituted earthly passion for divine passion.  In other words, Pinchas provides a sort of paradigm of vigorous action in utter devotion to one’s goal without weighing one’s actions first.  Pinchas did not consult sages or judges, but acted decisively as soon as he saw wrongdoing.

I would like to raise a number of questions with a view to understanding Scripture’s position on zealotry:

  1. Scripture describes the preparations for war against the Midianites in the following words:

“Moses dispatched them on the campaign, a thousand from each tribe, with Pinchas son of Eleazar serving as a priest on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts” (Num. 31:6).

How is it that Pinchas displayed extraordinary courage and resourcefulness when faced with the incapacity of those who witnessed the above-mentioned sin, yet he when it comes to going to battle, Scripture describes him as a spiritual and religious leader who holds the sacred utensils and blows the trumpets?  It would seem that Pinchas should have carried on and with spear in hand stood in the forefront of the camp.

Even the interpretation given by Rashi requires explanation.  Rashi says that the “sacred utensils” were the Ark and the Golden Plate, “for Balaam was with them [the Midianites] and through enchantment he made the kings of Midian float in the air and he himself floated with them; he [Pinchas] showed them the Golden Plate upon which the Divine Name was engraved and they fell to the ground.”

In other words, according to this legend, the Israelites were fighting on the concrete, earthly level, while Pinchas was fighting on the magical, heavenly level.  A magician was perceived as a person with a certain body of knowledge that could be enlisted to help in battle.  Still, one wonders why the expertise and strength of purpose that Pinchas had exhibited in real fighting was not enlisted?

  1. At the beginning of Parashat Pinchas comes the command, “Assail the Midianites and deal them a blow” (Num. 25:17).  This command is not carried out until several chapters later, in the war on the Midianites in which Pinchas was a spiritual or (according to Rashi) magical leader.  The question must be asked:  Why does Scripture separate the command from its performance?
  2. Another model of zealotry is documented after the sin of the Golden Calf in Parashat Ki-Tisa.  The Levites, too, came out as zealous for G-d’s name, having been commanded to kill all those who had sinned concerning the Golden Calf and to strike every man at his brother (on the father’s side) in order to kill those who had sinned.  We are undoubtedly dealing here with people of a certain temperament, people capable even of striking down members of their own family at the Lord’s behest.  Scripture says there of Joshua son of Nun,

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.  And he would then return to the camp; but his attendant, Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent” (Ex. 33:11).

In almost diametrical opposition to the Levites with their tough and proactive nature, Joshua is perceived as “dwelling in tents,” sitting and listening to Moses the Teacher and to the elders, and waiting on them—a totally passive figure.  Here, too, a certain difficulty arises:  the “aggressive” Levites, capable of striking at their own relations at the Lord’s behest, were supposed to minister in the Lord’s House.  Their job was patently religious and spiritual.  In contrast, Joshua son of Nun, a passive figure who did not take initiative, came to stand for the ideal military commander or fighter.  The question arises:  What was the reasoning behind this reward and personal growth?

It seems we have here a scriptural motif that recurs in several episodes and embodies great political wisdom.  According to Scripture, the zealous person cannot be a military leader.  Zealotry has certain positive qualities and aspects, but it is devoid of political wisdom.  A military commander must be someone who makes decisions after due consideration, who is attuned and listens to experts with experience, examining all aspects of the battle, and then deciding whether to go to war and how the battle should be fought.  A person such as Joshua son of Nun was an ideal commander because he only went to war after having gained experience by huddling close to Moses and the elders in the Tent.

In a certain respect, such an approach is reminiscent of the model of the American armed forces, whose Commander in Chief is the President of the United States.  A certain President, who in his younger years actually opposed the Vietnam War and was an advocate of peace, in due time became the object of praise.  In line with this perhaps we can explain the separation between the command to fight the Midianites and fulfillment of that command.  When anger reigns and desire for revenge (“the Lord’s vengeance on Midian”) is what guides one’s responses, it is forbidden to take action immediately.  An ideal commander such as Joshua son of Nun does not wage war out of a storm of emotions.  Such a commander examines the situation closely and consults those with experience, and sometimes even waits until the heat for revenge cools, and then decides to take the initiative.

In contrast, in worshipping the Lord, on the religious and spiritual level, zeal and devotion are appropriate.  The Levites were graced with devotion to the Lord’s commands to the extent that they could override their feelings of brotherhood, and therefore they were channeled to serve the Lord in the Temple.  In relations between us and our Maker, we are called upon to show absolute devotion and uncompromising zeal.  Pinchas, who showed devotion to his soul’s limit, was placed in command of the spiritual battle, with the sacred utensils and trumpets, but not of the actual fighting.  He fought the heavenly battle, but not the earthly one.  Scripture presents an understanding of human responses which is evidenced also in other matters, teaching us an important lesson in the ways of military and social leadership

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