Pinchas: Loving God, too much of a good thing?
I can remember clearly, one Friday afternoon a few years ago, as I was in the sanctuary of the synagogue practicing my sermon for the upcoming shabbos, a man walked in looking for the rabbi. It’s not so uncommon for people from all different backgrounds and faiths to walk into Sherith Israel looking for help. This was one of the more interesting parts of being the assistant Rabbi there for 2 years. The man seemed excited or agitated, and since I was the only Rabbi around at the time, I sat and talked to him. The beginning of our conversation jumped all over the place, at first I didn’t know where he was going; he spoke to me about how wonderful he thinks the Jewish people are, and how much respect he has for the children of God, but eventually it became clear that he was working his way up to telling me about certain passages in, what he refers to as the old testament, which maybe I wasn’t aware of, that proved that his candidate for the Messiah was the real one. He didn’t work for any missionary organizations or anything like that, It was very clear that what motivated him to walk into the local synagogue was an extreme love for his religious beliefs. He was truly concerned that I was missing out, he couldn’t help himself. He was overcome with an absolute feeling of certainty and love, he needed to share it, but he was oblivious to the disrespect he was showing my beliefs and way of thinking.
In Judaism, nothing is black and white. Zealotry has its place as we see in the namesake of this week’s Parsha, Pinchas.. But throughout the corpus of Jewish literature and ideas, the topic of Zealotry is broached with great caution. Extreme zeal is not something to emulate.
There is a midrash that says Pinchas is Eliyahu. The man in last week’s Parsha who took the law into his own hands and slew a prince of Israel and Midianite princess for their immorality and idol worship is the prophet who defeated and slew the prophets of Ba’al after the famous showdown on Mt. Carmel. This is quite shocking because these two biblical characters lived hundreds of years apart. What causes our sages to make such a startling claim? The early 16th century Italian scholar known as the Seforno quotes an earlier translation and commentary which explains how Pinchas and Eliyahu are literally the same person. Seforno puts forth the idea that the Torah brit shalom, covenant of peace, Given to Pinchas by God as reward for his act of zealotry is a gift of immortality. But others are uncomfortable with the literal interpretation of the Midrash. They understand the Midrash as teaching us about a symbolic parallel between the personalities of Pinchas and Eliyahu. Both Pinchas and Eliyahu were zealots, and they both committed egregious sins in the service of God. In their defense of God and Judaism, both Pinchas and Eliyahu violated commandments which would normally make them liable to receive the death penalty according to Jewish law.
Killing Zimri was not a clear cut case of right and wrong. Our sages are clearly uncomfortable with Pinchas’ actions as they teach us in Masechet Sanhedrin that had Zimri, the victim, turned around and killed Pinchas first in self defense, he would be innocent of any crime; that had Pinchas killed him at any moment other than the exact moment that he was involved in the sin, Pinchas would be a murderer; and that if Pinchas had asked permission from a beit din, he would have been denied. In the end, God tells us that Pinchas was right in doing what he did, but we needed God to tell us that, it wasn’t obvious. Eliyahu, in his showdown with the prophets of Ba’al on the mountaintop, built his own altar and brought a sacrifice on it. During this period of time, it was categorically forbidden for a Jewish person to build a private altar and bring a sacrifice on it.Despite the fact that both Eliyahu and Pinchas are considered religious heroes, they were heroes in times of need, but not role models.
The evidence for this is although Pinchas was given a brit shalom, he would never be a normal cohen. As a result of his violence, he would never be permitted to participate in the usual Priestly duties of the tabernacle. To be valid for the Priestly service, a person must never have shed blood, regardless of whether the circumstances were accidental or if the violence was justified.
Pinchas acted on God’s behalf, ending a plague of idolatry amongst the Jewish people in the desert, but the manner in which he did it led him to lose his Job. Similarly, Eliyahu’s theatrical showdown with the priests of Ba’al may have been successful in stamping out the rampant idolatry of the time, but in doing so he violated a commandment not to bring sacrifices on an altar outside of the Temple. Shortly following this incident Eliyahu is instructed by God to command his disciple to continue his work after him and he is whisked away to heaven in a fiery chariot. Eliyahu did a great service for God, but shortly after he also lost his job.
What motivated Pinchas and Eliyahu, what led them to violate commandments in the name of Heaven? It was their love of and devotion to God. In our Parsha, God describes the actions and motivation of Pinchas using the words בקנאו את קנאתי בתוכם, while he was zealous for my sake. The same language is used by Eliyahu in the way he describes his own motivations. Eliyahu says, קנא קנאתי לה, I am very zealous for God. Their love was of a clear and absolute truth; to them it was so black and white that when they saw something wrong, they acted. Their actions were the extreme manifestation of this certainty. We can see a similar experience to a lesser extent in aspects of our own lives.
We all have moments when we feel something powerful; something we know to be right. It’s hard to control ourselves when we are overcome with this feeling. We are so excited that we want to scream from the rooftops and let everyone know! To a much lesser extent, but still the same drive, when we discover an amazing tv show, movie, or book, most of us can’t help but at least recommend them to all of our friends and family or even try to force them to enjoy the same thing we did. We want to share the beauty that we find. Though these things are trivial matters, we often have a hard time listening to someone talk negatively about one of these things that we have enjoyed.
If this is true with our favorite pastimes, think about how much more true it is with regard to decisions about our lifestyles and our religious practices. When it comes to the matters of deep seated belief, this need to share can sometimes be at best, offensive, and at worst, rather dangerous. There are manifestations of other religions who happily adopt this need to share, to spread the good word. But many times in history it has led to great crimes and violence against the Jewish people as well as many others. With our own religion, although Pinchas and Eliyahu are the rare examples of when this type of behavior was justified, there are some dark, little known, periods in Jewish history when Jewish armies were converting people by the sword. It is human nature to feel the certainty of our convictions and act upon them, but doing so in a way that causes harm to other people or violates the Torah is not the Jewish way.
Judaism treads very lightly with regard to the way in which we influence others and show them truth. A Mishna in Masechet Eduyoth records certain arguments of Hillel and Shamai. We often hear about the schools of Hillel and Shamai having famous disputes. But the arguments listed in this Mishna are different, they are the ones where they initially disagreed on the interpretation of a law, but in the end one of the great sages changed his mind and adopted the law according to the other. The Mishna asks, if in the end they agreed on the interpretation of the law, why bother recording that they once disagreed. The Mishna responds it is to teach us that even our greatest fathers were never so confident and certain in their own words that they were unable to see the truth of another approach.
The real lesson here is to be humble. No one is always right, our greatest sages were willing and able to face the possibility that they might be wrong, and it led them to be able to respect and see truth in opposing perspectives. To go through life allowing for the possibility of being wrong requires great humility, but it is the model that our tradition wants us to learn from and emulate. Zeal, on the other hand, is the negation of this humility. It leads us to act, or more often than not, react with absolute confidence in ourselves and devalue the perspective of other people. It is hard to really make a positive impact on another person when everything we do shows a lack of respect of who they are and where they are coming from.
It is difficult shame someone into truly agreeing with you, it is rare to successfully convince someone of anything by beating them up.
How do we make a lasting positive impression on another human being? Our tradition uses Aaron as the archetype of this character trait. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches, “Hillel would say, be of the disciples of Aaron - a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all creations and draws them close to Torah.” First you have to love and respect people before you can bring them close to your way of thinking. In the midrashic work, Avot d’Rebbe Natan, we are shown more clearly how Aaron would achieve his lasting impact on others. It says, “If Aaron would see someone acting improperly, he would not go over and rebuke or criticize the fellow directly. He would rather *befriend* him, pretending not to be aware of his faults. The person would eventually grow ashamed and think to themselves: "Aaron is such an amazing person and role model and he wants to be my friend. What would my friend Aaron think if he knew I acted this way? How can I act in a way that is more deserving of his friendship?" Sooner or later the person would repent his or her ways.
This lesson goes further back; in fact God teaches us something very similar in something he says to Eliyahu. Following the showdown on Mt. Carmel where Eliyahu successfully defeats the prophets of Ba’al, he runs from the evil Queen Jezebel. While on the run he is led by an angel of God to a cave in the wilderness. While he’s in the cave, God comes to him and says, “What are you doing here Eliyahu?” This question isn’t just, what are you doing in the cave? God knows what he’s doing in the cave, he led him there. God is asking Elijah an existential question; what are you doing here on Earth? What is your purpose? What drives you? It is at this point that Eliyahu says, “I have been very Zealous, קנא קנאתי for you God. The children of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets, I’m the only one left who sees the truth and they are after me.”
God tells Eliyahu to go out and stand on the mountain, and God will pass by him. Immediately a strong wind which tore the mountians and broke apart rocks passed by Eliyahu, This was followed by an earthquake, then a great fire. After each of these cataclysmic events, the text reminds us that God is not in these awe inspiring displays of force. In the end God was in a קול דממה דקה, a small still voice which followed all the noise.
It is human nature to beat our chest and to try to get our way by use of force. Godliness is more subtle. Aaron got it, he embodied this behavior, which is why he is the partriarch of the Priest caste in Judaism. The role of the priests, is to enrich and deepen the people’s relationship with God. It has to be done in a Godly way. This is symbolized in the law that a priest who has shed blood is disqualified from being able to serve in the temple. Violence, even when it happens by accident or with perfect justification, still has an impact on the person who did it. In our lives, violence, whether it is the physical kind or the emotional kind - as an attempt to force our will on others - is rarely effective, it harms us in the process and it should only be used as a last resort in times of great need.
Pinchas did not act priestly, what he did may have been necessary, but as a result he would never participate in the Priestly rituals. God protected him from the people in Israel who wanted to harm him for his actions by telling us in our Parsha that he is protected by a brit shalom, covenant of peace. The covenant of peace is very fitting; the following verse tells us that it was for him and for his offspring after him. Meaning, for the future Pinchas life should be about peace, his offspring shouldn’t learn from and emulate his violent behavior. Pinchas, we are told, often accompanied the Israelites into battle. Because in the macho lead up to war and in the heat of battle men often lose some of their humanity, Pinchas was a safeguard to remind them that our ways are of peace and pleasantness, we don’t put violence on a pedestal, in war sometimes violence is necesary, but it is only a necessary evil. Pinchas learnt his lesson.
After hearing the small still voice which is symbolic of God, Eliyahu was again asked the same question that he was asked before, what are you doing here Eliyahu? Word for word, Eliyahu says the same thing he answered before, קנא קנאתי, I am zealous for you. Immediately following this, he is commanded to anoint his successor and that is almost the last we hear about Eliyahu for the rest of the book of kings until he is taken away on a fiery chariot. It doesn’t seem like Eliyahu got the point. His way of doing things, fire and brimstone has a very limiting effect and it is usually not God’s ways.
The Torah describes the Jewish people as a Mamlechet Kohanim, a kingdom of priests. To deserve this title, we need to act like the model priest, Aaron. Who, first and foremost loved humanity and peace. So often we are tested in this regard. We are faced with people close to us and just in passing who live vastly different lives than us and make extemely different choices than we would make or approve of. Or world events challenge our sense of right and wrong, there are extremely divided opinions out there, and I’m sure in here, on issues varying from Peace in the Middle East, abortion, or the ethics of same sex civil marriage. To be students of Aaron we need to disagree on all matters in a way that is not disagreeable.
During this time period between the fasts of שבעה עשר בתמוז and תשע באב, we are called upon to fix the sins which led to the spiritual decay and subsequent destruction of the Temple, the sin of hatred of one another. We learn to hate when we demonize the things we are uncomfortable with and disagree with. May we all be blessed to live like Aaron to love and pursue peace by being lovers of humanity.