In this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, we find one of the greatest challenges facing religion: zealotry. When people tend to speak against “organized religion,” two of their main arguments concern the enforcement of religious values on those of other faiths or traditions, and the acts of religious zealots.
With Pinchas, we find the first instance of a religious zealot in our tradition. In last week’s parasha, the prophet Balaam was unable to curse the Israelites as he had been hired to do by Balak. So instead, he devised a different strategy. As is mentioned a little later in the book of Numbers, Balaam convinced the Moabite women to seduce the Israelite men and thus lead them down the path towards idolatry (Num. 31:16).
When this occurred, God’s wrath resulted in a plague that killed 24,000 Israelites. It was during this time that Pinchas observed Zimri, a leader from the tribe of Shimon, flaunting himself with a Midianite woman, Cozbi, in front of all of the Israelites and Moses. Pinchas took it upon himself to impale Zimri and Cozbi on a spike. After which the plague was lifted and Pinchas was rewarded with a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace.
In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “There can be no doubt that Pinchas was a religious hero. He stepped into the breach at a time when the nation was facing religious and moral crisis and palpable Divine anger. He acted while everyone else, at best, watched. He risked their lives by so doing. There can be little doubt that the mob might have turned against him and attacked him… he acted for the sake of God and the religious welfare of the nation. And God himself is called “zealous” many times in the Torah.”
Yet, we do not elevate Pinchas in our subsequent tradition to the status of Moses or Abraham or Sarah or Deborah. Nor was Pinchas appointed the next leader of the Israelites, this honor was given to Joshua.
In this week’s haftarah portion, we read the story of Elijah, who in an act of zealotry, confronted and killed the priests of Baal. Fearing for his life from Queen Jezebel and King Ahab, Elijah fled to the wilderness. There God confronted Elijah for his deeds and demonstrated how God was not in the wind or an earthquake or a fire, but instead, “in a still, small voice” (First Kings 19:13).
Our tradition has always had an ambivalence towards religious zealotry. It believes in the rule of law and justice not vengeance and bloodshed. According to this understanding, anyone who acts violently in the name of God, has gravely misunderstood the nature of what it means to be Jewish.
Or as Rabbi Sacks wrote, “Nothing in the religious life is more risk-laden than zeal, and nothing more compelling than the truth God taught Elijah, that God is not to be found in the use of force but in the still, small voice…”
On this Shabbat, may we, and the whole world be reminded that when people use their understanding of religion to cause the suffering of others, they are failing to understand the true lessons of Pinchas and Elijah. Zealotry is a means unto itself and a perversion of what God truly wants from us: to instead walk in ways of holiness, pursue justice, and bring peace whenever and wherever possible.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff