Zealot in deed and zealot in the heart

Despite Torah's praise for Pinchas' zealousness, educators throughout Jewish history don't do the same. So what is the Torah teaching us?

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol ,

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Guy Tayeb

The parsha tells us the praise and reward that Pinchas received by being a zealot for G-d and killing Zimri Ben Salu and Kosbi Bat Tzur, who had publicly committed a grave sin. His act was the catalyst to stop the plague which had begun to consume the people of Israel. It seems, however, that despite everything told in the Torah about Pinchas’s greatness, we do not find that this act is held as a model for us to follow. Throughout the ages we do not see or hear that the people of Israel educate their children to be as zealous as Pinchas. So, every year when we read about Pinchas, I feel somewhat uncomfortable.

The question is asked: what is the Torah teaching us by praising Pinchas' zeal if we do not seem to be following in his footsteps? Would we like our children to act like Pinchas? Does the Torah really want to teach us to be “fanatics”? After all, we all know how much evil has occurred over time by people who have attempted to be zealots, thinking that they are the Pinchas of their generation, but cause pain and suffering to many.

It seems that Pinchas's zeal was not written in the Torah as a model in the practical sense, because his zeal was only suited to his personality and the particular case in which he acted. But the purpose of this story is to elevate us from where we are to a higher place. We need to rise up out of our comfort zone and find the great power within ourselves and put it to use.

Rabbi Kook writes in Orot HaKodesh: "The truth is that the average way is the worthiest and most fulfilling way of life”. Rabbi Kook explains that G-d wants us to be normal and to always walk the “middle road”. However, there are 2 reasons for "fanatic" stories: the first is to teach us about people who did extreme things which were appropriate and correct in a particular situation, and the second – which is a by-product of the first - is that, by hearing these special stories, we common people will appreciate the acts of devotion to G-d and feel more connected to Him.

So, what we need to learn from Pinchas’s zeal is not to be like Pinchas per-se, but to be more loyal to G-d today than we were yesterday. Sadly, we live in a world where we see daily wrongs and sins, both between man and G-d and between man and his fellow man. The reality makes us indifferent. For example, on our walk to shul on Shabbat we see cars driving past but as we are so accustomed to the sight, it unfortunately does not faze us and we are not at all shocked by it.

From Pinchas we need to learn that the fact that the world does not run according to G-d’s will should cause us heartache. Even when we do not actually act, we are still supposed to feel pain in our hearts and mourn the fact that the name of G-d is being desecrated in the world which is supposed to reveal it.

Rabbi Shlomo Sobol serves as Dean and Founder at the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development, and as rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem in Modi’in.