Parshat Pinchas: Advocacy and Partnership in Zealotry

This past week we read one of rarest of all Haftarot (thanks to Shlomo for this link), one that has not been read since 2005 and will not be read again until 2035. What makes the Haftarah so rare is that most of the time, Parshat Pinchas follows the 17th of Tammuz, causing this Haftarah to be replaced by the first of the seasonal Haftarot designated for the Three Weeks. What makes the Haftarah itself so unusual, however, is something altogether different: that while it features one of our most celebrated and venerated icons, Eliyahu, it appears largely critical of his actions, particularly as compared to the icon in our Parsha, Pinchas.

This incongruity requires examination. Pinchas receives the Brit Shalom, covenant of peace, and Brit Kehunat Olam, eternal priesthood, for his role in eliminating the publicly licentious Zimri and Kuzbi. Eliyahu, on the other hand, is retired from his position as Navi after acting to save Hashem’s honor when the Jews in his generation fall into a pattern of idolatry. To compound the problem, both Pinchas and Eliyahu are credited with acting on zealotry, using almost exactly the same words: Eliyahu tells Hashem that קנא קנאתי לה’ אלקיו, I have been very zealous for Your sake, and Hashem reports that Pinchas’ reward has come בקנאו את קנאתי, for his having been zealous for My sake. So why such a different outcome between the two stories?

Dr. Nehama Leibowitz, in an essay on Parshat Vayechi, points out a startling difference between two reactions of Yaakov to the actions of his sons Shimon and Levi, who defend their sister Dina’s honor by wiping out the town of Shechem. In Parshat Vayishlach, when that story first occurs, Yaakov adjures his sons that they have caused a terrible Chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name, and also caused mortal danger to the fragile nascent nation of Israel:

בראשית פרק לד פסוק ל
וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל שִׁמְעוֹן וְאֶל לֵוִי, עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ, בַּכְּנַעֲנִי וּבַפְּרִזִּי, וַאֲנִי מְתֵי מִסְפָּר וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי וְנִשְׁמַדְתִּי אֲנִי וּבֵיתִי

Yet at the end of the Book of Bereishit, when Yaakov is giving out Berachot to his children, he expresses a different reason for being upset at his zealot sons:

בראשית פרק מט פסוקים ו-ז
בְּסֹדָם אַל תָּבֹא נַפְשִׁי, בִּקְהָלָם אַל תֵּחַד כְּבֹדִי, כִּי בְאַפָּם הָרְגוּ אִישׁ, וּבִרְצֹנָם עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹר
אָרוּר אַפָּם כִּי עָז, וְעֶבְרָתָם כִּי קָשָׁתָה; אֲחַלְּקֵם בְּיַעֲקֹב, וַאֲפִיצֵם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל

Here Yaakov expresses disappointment with his sons not over the Chillul Hashem they had caused, which had long since abated; and not for putting the Jewish nation into jeopardy, since the nation was doing quite well at the end of the Book of Bereishit. Here, Yaakov is upset at the anger itself, but also, if we look more closely, at the insular nature of that nature: בְאַפָּם, וְעֶבְרָתָם, וּבִרְצֹנָם – it was an anger that was personal, not expressing Divine anger but their own provincial self-interests.

Anger which does not channel the feelings of the Divine but only expresses one’s own is, by definition, not לשם שמים and is not destined to achieve positive results. To paraphrase Pirkei Avot, כל קנאה שתלויה בדבר, סופה להתבטל. When Shimon and Levi expressed anger, their actions were not in partnership with Hashem. Rabbi David Fohrman makes a similar point regarding Eliyahu. He may have acted on behalf of Hashem, but he did not act with Hashem. It is that latter quality, one that Pinchas displayed, which makes zealotry meaningful – we might say כל קנאה שאינה תלויה בדבר, סופה להתקיים. Rabbi Fohrman points out that like Moshe before him, Eliyahu spent forty days and nights fasting at Har Sinai. But unlike Moshe, Eliyahu expressed his zealotry on behalf of Hashem rather than in partnership with Him. Soon after Moshe expresses surprise at Hashem’s anger over the Jews’ idolatry – למה ה’ יחרה אפך בעמך? – Moshe himself expresses anger by smashing the Luchot at the foot of the mountain. This act of apparent hypocrisy, points out Rabbi Fohrman, is understandable if we interpret Moshe’s question as surprise not at Hashem’s anger but at the need for that anger to be expressed by Hashem when it can be expressed in a mollified way by Hashem’s partner, Moshe. למה ה’ יחרה אפך בעמך? – Why should You be angry, Hashem, when I can express that same anger for both of us? But that form of zealotry, and its concomitant rewards, only come from an understanding that that partnership exists. Eliyahu, like Shimon and Levi, acted on behalf of Hashem; Moshe and Pinchas each acted in partnership with Him, channeling Divine anger by means of their own.

These thoughts, which I shared at Seudah Shelishit in my Shul this past Shabbat, have been on my mind as I have considered the actions of the terrorists who killed the Palestinian teenage boy last week. This act of barbarism should deeply alarm us because of what it says about what evil exists in our own community, which is more in our control to alleviate than the evil in any other community, but also because of our interpretation of that evil. Much of the response I have heard has centered on the danger in which it put Israelis or the Chillul Hashem that it caused – exactly Yaakov’s response to Shimon and Levi in Parshat Vayishlach: עֲכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי לְהַבְאִישֵׁנִי בְּיֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ …  וְנֶאֶסְפוּ עָלַי וְהִכּוּנִי. But there is a Parshat Vayechi response to be had as well: The murder was inherently wrong, vengeful, selfish, and not in partnership with Hashem. It was an Eliyahu response, casting upon Hashem what we wish His will to be, not trusting in the system He has already put in the world to do its job. While Eliyahu attempted to strengthen the Jews’ faith by proving to them that the promises in Devarim were real, he ultimately doubly failed. The people still did not believe or repent, so Hashem’s own original response of silence proved to be, not surprisingly, equally if not more appropriate. But more than that, by questioning Hashem’s original response and calling for a different one, Eliyahu called into question the strength of his own belief in how Hashem runs the world and implied that he was of greater intelligence than Hashem as to how the world should operate. Shimon and Levi, too, by taking action into their own hands, demonstrated little belief in the possibility that Hashem would respond appropriately on His own. The Jewish terrorists last week likewise showed little faith in the Divine or natural systems of order within which we need to operate. They acted upon אַפָּם, עֶבְרָתָם and בִרְצֹנָם, but not as partners with Hashem.

It behooves us to seek the clarity needed to act as partners with Hashem, rather than as His handlers. But short of that clarity, it behooves us not to act at all.

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