This week we have one of my favorite Torah portions. I say this with some hesitation, though. This week’s portion is one of the most challenging texts that we encounter in our Torah. It is calling attention to the Jewish people’s first true embrace of zealotry or, dare I even say, religious extremism.
As our people were ready to enter into the Holy Land, they made a huge mistake. While near the land of Israel, among the Midianites, Israelite men began taking Midianite wives, forsaking their birthright and faith in G-d.
Inspired by what can only be described as true zealotry, Pinchas decided to take matters into his own hands. He murdered a high-ranking Israelite and his Midianite wife to make a point. His point underscored endogamy and propelled the identity of the Israelites first in the land where they resided.
Later in our Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad will go before Moses and ask more conventionally for him to plead on their behalf to G-d for the tribe of Manasseh to be awarded a parcel of Land adjacent to the land of Israel, chiefly where Moabite and Midianite Lands once stood.
Both Pinchas and the daughters of Zelphehad had similar aims and goals. However, their mechanisms and delivery were dramatically different from each other. In many ways both Pinchas’ methods and the methods employed by the daughters of Zelphahad played hand in hand with each other. Though, without the function of one or the other, it is hard to imagine that the outcome would be the same in this week’s Torah portion: underscoring endogamy, control of the land and its people.
The theme of this week’s Torah portion—zealotry—is as unavoidable as the name of Pinchas in our Parshat HaShavua. Although this week’s Torah portion depicts our people’s first embrace of zealotry, it really sets the stage for a romanticism that outlived antiquity and is contemporary with our existence today. So, what do we as Jews think about zealotry?
Are we a people opposed or in favor of taking actions into our own hands as we read in this week’s Torah?
Let us for a moment remove ourselves from the shadow of antiquity described in this week’s portion, which dates from some 3500 years ago. Let me speak from my personal experience. Twenty years ago, I was preparing for my bar-mitzvah. The bar-mitzvah was supposed to be in the Land of Israel. I prepared for this day much like I see our bar-mitzvah students at Etz Chaim. However, my bar-mitzvah was set to be in Israel, and to be at Masada of all places.
Masada to this day is associated with the word zealot in its perfected state. What we know of Masada is documented mostly by Josephus Flavious in his historiography Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus noted that following the year 70, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the zealots of the Jewish rebellion against Rome held a final stronghold on the plateau of Masada. The Roman army received orders from Rome to crush this final stronghold of Jewish resistance. The siege at Masada lasted for months. During the siege, the Romans built an elaborate path for their army all the way up to the top of the peak of the platea. As the Roman army prepared to breach the walls of Masada, the zealots decided in an act of defiance to take matters into their own hands. They decided to take their own lives rather than living in Roman bondage and slavery.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, as Israel began to reclaim lost heritage sites, archeologists discovered Masada. The site became a focal point for Zionism. Imagine again Israel fighting on all sides during the 1960s and ‘70s, against all odds and delivering victory over victory against her enemies.
Masada was and is the perfect backdrop to the story of Israel, the story of indignant and often inglorious defiance. So too, Masada was a pristine site for my bar-mitzvah. I had learned for years about my Jewish heritage and family in Israel. I wanted to feel connected with them. Sadly, my bar-mitzvah coincided with the second intifada, and days before my bar mitzvah our plans were averted. Only a few years later was I able to return to Israel, stand at Masada, and have the bar mitzvah I trained for surrounded by friends and family.
Yet, as I grew in age, I began to question the narrative I had been taught from a young age about this site, about the zealots and extremism. Now as an adult, the narrative of Masada seems incomplete in some ways.
The harsh reality is that the zealot narrative is problematic. We may have taken the high road as zealots on plenty of occasions, but to what end, and did the ends justify the means or even our goals? Was the mass death at Masada reasonable? Imagine for a moment the actions of other zealots throughout our history and the repercussions of their actions. For instance, in 1938, Herschel Grynzspan assassinated the German Diplomat Ernst Von Rath, resulting in the Nazi pogrom of Kristallnacht. Were Grynzspan’s actions justifiable?
Most relevant, though, may be the creation of the state of Israel. Certainly, zealots were an important part of Zionism. Our earliest Zionist leaders and ideologies may be described best with the word zealot.
Many of the early Zionists were indignant, independent and even violent. Many people routinely slate the more extreme early Zionists, the Stern Gang, Herut, and Zeev Jabotinsky as not merely freedom fighters but more akin to dangerous fanatics. Yet the State of Israel would not be what it is or even exist if not for the bold actions taken by a few zealots. The very act of illegally immigrating to a land, defying Nazis, defying the British, and defying all odds was courageous, yet also criminal.
However, the reality of Israel’s circumstances pairs perfectly with our Parshat haShavua. Recall again in our Torah reading how Pinchas was praised by G-d for his acts of zealotry. Yet his narrative is only underpinned by a historical reality provided towards the end of our reading.
Notice at the end of our Torah reading how the text draws attention to the daughters of Zelphehad who reach similar conclusions as Pinchas using a very different mechanism. Rather than taking matters into their own hands, the daughters of Pinchas follow a system, a methodical order, a legal bureaucratic method. They were also troubled by the distractions of exogamy and landlessness, but they turn to their leader rather than taking matters into their own hands. They turn to Moses, who then turned to G-d for guidance. G-d assures the people of Israel that they will be awarded the lands adjacent to the land of Israel.
G-d praises both the daughters of Zelphehad and Pinchas in the end. However, they used very different methods. The historical and biblical reality contains both narratives, that of the zealot and that of the bureaucratic conventionalist, working hand and hand with each other. Their methods are completely divergent in path, but working together they reach the same goals, as in the case of the state of Israel.
Imagine again, a Land without UN recognition underpinned through a bureaucratic process of legitimization. But the other hand, imagine if the waves of Aliyah, often illegal, had not taken matters into their own hands. Imagine if they had not forcefully ceased the land from British colonists and other occupying peoples. If not for these actions, it is equally hard to imagine the birth of a nation state.
However, it is hard for me to imagine the ancient Israel we are reading about this week as that much different from contemporary experiences. Yes, today our skin does crawl when we learn about the actions of Pinchas, the actions of early Zionists, about the bombing of the King David Hotel, or the mass casualties of Arab villages like Deir Yassin.
Yet, as much as we want to reject and disapprove of these acts, we must also recognize them as part of our creation, our genesis. Maybe not a beautiful part of it, but a part, a reality we must perhaps not always embrace, but need to accept and not hide.
We walk a delicate balance in Judaism with the zealotry described in the text of this week. Our challenge is as Jews to not lose our Jewish identity in the enactment of being a zealot of faith. Yet at the same time we are expected to be Jews with zeal. Ironically, the most Jewish enactment of self-determination the mass suicide of Masada is also directly prohibitive in Judaism. So too, the violent actions taken by many early Zionists were prohibitive in Judaism.
Although we may disagree with ourselves or the world around us, we need to stay true at heart as Jews and not lose ourselves, lose what it means to be a Jew in the chaos of zeal. May this be our message from Pinchas in this week’s Torah portion.