Zealotry Diminishes Goodness Within Us All



Parshah Pinchas provides a rich pastiche of narrative and ritual law. It describes how Aaron's grandson, Pinchas, saved the Israelites from moral degradation by killing a prince from the tribe of Shimon who, together with a Midianite princess, brazenly led the people towards wholesale decadence.

We learn of a new census of the Israelites, now standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan, of God's charge that Moses choose a successor and of a legal revision allowing women who have no brothers to inherit their fathers' estates.

The portion's conclusion is well known to those who worship regularly on the Holy Days; its verses, read from a "Second Torah," describe the sacrifices brought to the Temple daily, on Shabbat, during Rosh Hodesh and on the Festivals.

The Israeli scholar, Rabbi Pinchas Peli, once posed an interesting question to this storyline. Why, he asked, was Moses told to select Joshua as the next leader of the People Israel? After all Pinchas was the hero of the hour, the one who averted God's wrath by stopping Israelite licentiousness "dead in its tracks."

Wouldn't it have been more fitting for Moses to name his grandnephew as successor? The answer offers us some timely insights into the Torah's understanding of leadership.

As the moment for succession approached, Moses prayed to "the God of the Spirits of All Flesh." Through this designation, Moses implored God to select a leader who would respect diversity. In a crisis, there are rare moments when zealotry is needed.

However, regular governance requires a regard for the varied dispositions of those in society and a desire to mediate their interests. Such a leader knows not only when "to take the people out" to do battle but also when "to bring them in."

Thus, Joshua was better suited to succeed Moses. While Pinchas might have saved the Israelites once by taking matters into his own hands, no society can thrive on sustained zealotry.

The proof can be found in the 22nd chapter of Joshua and the 20th chapter of Judges. In these we learn that Pinchas, then the High Priest, was responsible for almost launching a civil war against the tribes of Reuben and Gad and later, despite the Israelites' protests, for the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin.

My teacher, Dr. Seymour Siegel, defined a fanatic as someone who wants you to die for his or her beliefs. Sadly, this reality has become familiar in the modern world. Those who plan terrorist assaults rarely are the ones to carry them out. From positions of safety, they recruit others who are motivated by "true belief," discontent, cash incentives to their families or delusions of glory.

These murderous pawns then sacrifice themselves for "the cause," frequently slaughtering innocent men, women and children, who have little, if any, direct connection to the extremists' stated goals.

At a time when some disaffected in our own country suggest armed violence if they don't electorally prevail, we should learn a lesson from this week's portion. Yod, the first Hebrew letter of the Tetragramaton (YHVH), is written in a truncated form when the Torah spells the name Pinchas. This is to remind us that when we vent such passion we diminish God's presence within us and among us.

Rabbi Howard A. Addision is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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