Last week’s parsha, Parshat Balak, ended on a cliff-hanger. The prince of the tribe of Shimon engaged in a vulgar act of public promiscuity with a Midianite woman, and Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon the High Priest, grabbed his spear and impaled them both. We have no idea what God’s reaction to this act of zealous rage is going to be. We wait at the edge of our seats for the opening of this week’s parsha to find out: Will God be wrathful against Pinchas for taking the law into his own hands and killing a fellow Jew or will He praise it as a righteous act of heroism?
We don’t have to wait much longer to find out. Parshat Pinchas opens with God praising Pinchas for his zealotry and bestowing upon him the dual reward of “briti shalom” and “brit kehunat olam” – covenants of peace and eternal priesthood. The question is: WHY was this the right or even appropriate course of action for Pinchas to take? Does the Torah espouse vigilantism, a society in which every individual deems himself the arbiter of justice? Is Parshat Pinchas promoting passionate acts of rage?
Beyond our own intuitive discomfort with this message, the Torah itself seems to convey a very different attitude toward zealotry through the character of Eliyahu. When Eliyahu expresses zealous rage in response to the people’s inability to abandon their idolatrous ways, God sends him into retirement and instructs him to appoint Elisha as the new prophet to lead the people in his stead! (See Melachim I Chapter 19) Why is Pinchas’s act of קנאה, zeal, lauded while Eliyahu’s is censured? What in fact is the Torah’s perspective on zealotry?
I would like to suggest that perhaps the key lies in what motivates their passionate acts. Rabbi Chanoch Waxman points out that each character receives a message from God in the wake of his vengeful performance. After Eliyahu has fled to the wilderness and embarked on a 40-day journey to Mount Horev (the parallels to Moshe are striking), God appears to him, and asks, “What are you doing here?” Eliyahu responds, “I have been vengeful/zealous (קנא קנאתי) for God because Your people have forsaken Your covenant.” God then proceeds to bestow upon Eliyahu the prophecy in which He sends a powerful wind, followed by a loud noise, and then a frightful fire.
Each time, God declares that He is not found in these formidable phenomena. Rather, He is to be found in the קול דממה דקה, the still small voice.
Immediately after sharing this prophetic message with Eliyahu, God again repeats the same question He had asked Eliyahu initially – “What are you doing here?” And Eliyahu responds verbatim with the identical reply that he uttered the first time – “קנא קנאתי for God because Your people have abandoned Your covenant.” It is at that precise point that God retires him. Why? Because he has not grasped the message of the קול דממה דקה, the still small voice. He is still raging against the people. He fails to understand that there is a time and a place for rage and vengeance. But that is not where God is ultimately found; it is not the end goal or the place where one should strive to remain. It is merely the means that is occasionally necessary in order to rediscover the קול דממה דקה where God can truly be found and experienced.
Similar to Eliyahu, Pinchas receives a prophetic message from God immediately following his act of vengeance. God promises him בריתי שלום, My covenant of peace. Usually this is understood as a corrective, an antidote to his act of rage to help him re-achieve the proper balance. However, Rav Ezra Bick suggested that it is not an antidote that God is granting him; rather it is a medal of honor, a trophy awarded to him for that which he successfully achieved. Pinchas’s act of zealotry was not fundamentally motivated by rage; it was driven by a desire to re-establish peace between God and His people. Pinchas felt compelled to act because he was desperate to assuage God’s anger and halt the Divine plague that was decimating Am Yisrael. God bestows His covenant of peace upon Pinchas not as a reward or corrective, but to crown him with a badge of honor that recognizes him for what he has already achieved – the re-establishment of peace between God and His people.
The powerful message is that zealousness is neither objectively positive or negative. The critical determinant is what motivates it. On a personal level, I know that when imposing a consequence on my children, I can feel in myself the difference between when I am acting out of anger versus when I feel emotionally neutral, but am acting out of responsibility to educate them. On a more global scale, some protests are inspired by a deep, genuine desire to improve society, while others seem intended to wreak havoc and sow further dissent. Through its nuanced and varied characters, the Torah seems to be directing us to be passionate and zealous in defense of the honor of God, as long as we don’t lose sight of the ultimate goal – to re-establish peace and be privileged to hear the still small voice in which God can be found.