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Parashat Pinchas 5779 — 07/27/2019

Parashat Pinchas 5779 — 07/27/2019

Bamidbar 25:10-30:1

We have discussed zealotry in previous years, but R. Goldin has an interesting and illuminating discussion that is very worth our while considering.

The complex, seemingly contradictory rabbinic attitude towards Pinchas’ actions rises out of the delicate balance struck by Jewish law as it navigates between two conflicting truths:
1. The halachic system, deeply committed to the deliberate application of the rule of law, can rarely, if ever, condone the decision to move beyond due legal process.
2. A legal system that does not allow for immediate, extraordinary reaction to moments of great exigency cannot survive, certainly not across the course of a turbulent history.
… Zealotry, such as that evidenced by Pinchas, pushes the envelope … further. Here, the halachah contemplates the possibility of individual action, precipitously taken, in cases of greatest exigency. The hesitation with which Jewish law approaches such zealous acts is most clearly exhibited in the aforementioned principle, that the rules allowing and governing such acts are “law that one may not teach.” This principle reflects a startling halachic posture. So ambivalent is the rabbinic attitude towards acts of zealotry that even though such acts are legal, we may not convey their legality even to someone seeking halachic guidance. Were someone to request a halachic ruling prior to the performance of an act of zealotry, he would be told not to act.
Some commentaries suggest that this halachic hesitation rises out of the fact that zealotry is an allowance, rather than an obligation. …
Other authorities perceive the halachic hesitation concerning zealotry as reflective of uncertainty concerning the motives of the zealot. To qualify as a zealot, one “must be animated by a genuine, unadulterated spirit of zeal to advance the glory of Gd ” Such purity of motive, however, is rare. Most often, other, less legitimate factors influence an individual’s decision to act under the cover of zealotry. The sages of Pinchas’ time, therefore, suspicious of their hero’s motives, move to excommunicate him, only to be stopped by a divine decree attesting to his genuineness.
Some scholars, however, see the complex halachic approach to zealotry as reflective of an even more basic issue.
Zealotry can be acceptable, suggest these authorities, only when it is true zealotry – when the act is emotionally driven, performed in the heat of the moment, without hesitation or calculation. If an individual, at the moment of crisis, pauses to ask for halachic guidance, he is by definition no longer a zealot and therefore forfeits any halachic allowance for his precipitous actions.

It seems there are a couple of things going on here. First, there is the necessity for any legal system to be able to account for extraordinary situations. A legal system is an attempt to systematize ethical decision-making. We have a system of laws, which are basic principles of behavior, and, at least in the US legal system, we have case law, which is a compendium of examples of the way the basic principles are applied to concrete situations. This works well in the normal range of behavior. The law progresses by applying existing principles to new situations, as long as the new situations are not too far out of the established range. In some cases there may be argument over which principles to apply to a new situation, and jurisprudence may have to take changes in social conditions or technology into account, but the organic process of debate and adjustment based on considered decisions by those empowered to make the law eventually comes to a new equilibrium.

When one gets an outlier that cannot be absorbed or accommodated by the existing system, such as Zimri and Cozbi’s blatant fornication, the system must provide an outlier response or break down completely. In Jewish law, this is the law of the zealot. Of course this is a very dangerous situation either way – if the zealot does not act, there is the danger of the whole system’s breaking down. If he does act, the characteristic of the action is critically dependent on the zealot’s state of consciousness. If there is any hidden, personal agenda in the zealot’s action, it is a fatally tainted act of lawlessness and only makes the situation worse.

Needless to say, situations that may require zealotry only arise when Gd’s Will is being flouted. Gd gave human beings free will, and that means our individual will can be aligned with Gd’s Will or not. Unfortunately, when a large enough fraction of a society is violating Gd’s Will regularly, the impurity thus generated builds up like water behind a dam, until the dam breaks with catastrophic effects – in our case there was a plague that wiped out about 24,000 Jews, a good percentage of the tribe of Shimon. It was only the equally violent intervention of Pinchas that averted further disaster. Gd’s reaction to Pinchas’ action indicated that he did, indeed act in accord with Gd’s Will, and was a true zealot. At times Gd has to act with violence to remove a major roadblock to Gd’s continued showering of good upon humanity.

I feel very confident that almost nobody alive today would meet the high standard of a true zealot. The whole issue becomes moot, however, by raising the level of consciousness of the society to the point where mass violations of Gd’s Will are not possible. If even small deviations can be corrected immediately, they will not spread. If the spiritual leaders of the people are truly able to raise every person in the community to a high standard of conformance of individual will and Gd’s Will, then we will not have to worry about zealotry at all.

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Pinchas

The central event in this parshah is Gd fulfilling Moses’ request to appoint someone to lead Bnei Israel into the Promised Land. Gd tells Moses to lay his hands on Joshua so that some of Moses’ spirit will enter Joshua and Joshua will be able to lead the people into the physical Promised Land. According to the Gemara the elders of the generation called this a “great embarrassment”, that Joshua was like the moon whereas Moses was like the sun.

If the Gemara is correct then the question arises, “Why did Gd appoint a leader who was less than Moses? who had only part of Moses’ spirit?”

Perhaps Moses did not need to enter the Promised Land to experience Teshuvah — he already had it, being soaked in Gd’s Presence as he was.

The Children of Israel, however, including Joshua did need to enter the Promised Land in order to be fully aware of Gd’s Presence. If all of Moses’ spirit were given to Joshua, then he also would have no need to enter the Promised Land and the people would have no leader.

What can this mean in our lives?

The Promised Land is within us even when we are acting in the (relative) desert that is the ordinary life of human beings. The qualities of our awareness that are less than full — our thoughts, our feelings, our sensory awareness — lead us to the Wholeness, the Promised Land that transcends them and pervades them.

These thoughts, feelings, sensory awarenesses are like Joshua — they allow us, through use, through practice, to experience more and more refined levels of them and eventually (Dear Gd, Please! Now!) to experience the Promised Land, the Wholeness, the Oneness in which Torah and Gd and all that is we experience as our own Self, as One.

Now, please, Now!

Baruch HaShem