How we Deal with Zealotry – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
It appears that Pinchas lived a very long time. In fact, maybe he is still alive today. This suggestion is based on the famous sequence of midrashim which state that Eliyahu and Pinchas are one and the same person even though Eliyahu prophesized at a time period several centuries after Am Yisrael had left the wilderness and entered into Eretz Yisrael. We are also familiar with the notion that Eliyahu never died but is still alive today, visiting new born boys at their brit, showing up at our seder table and he will, we hope, soon inform us of the impending ultimate redemption. The corollary of these various statements of Chazal is that Pinchas is still alive in this day and age and therefore a very old man.
It is somewhat simplistic to take these midrashim at face value. Yes, it is possible that Pinchas is in fact Eliyahu. Seforno at the beginning of this week's parsha comments that the "brit shalom", with which Pinchas was rewarded for his courageous act and his statement against the sins committed by Am Yisrael, is protection from the Angel of Death. Aside from this opinion, we suggest that Chazal are pointing to thematic connections between the two characters thereby equating their personalities and traits. They are both described as "kanaim", zealots, who act without concern for their own safety on behalf of the protection of the Torah and against the desecration of Hashem's name. We will endeavor to unravel a further connection between these two scions of our history.
As Parshat Pinchas is read this year before the three weeks, we have the somewhat rare opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the official haftara for this week. (When it occurs after Tammuz 17th, the haftara is taken from the opening chapter of Yirmiyahu, the first of "shlosha depuranuta".) The episode described is the dramatic meeting between Hashem and Eliyahu on Har Chorev, site of God's revelation to Am Yisrael, the mountain on which we received the Torah. Eliyahu is transported to this place by Hashem after he asks for his life to be taken. Various suggestions can be offered as to why Eliyahu had reached such a state of despair that he wished to depart from this world. These connect to the fact that on the one hand he was a "wanted" man, a warrant for his arrest and death having been issued by Queen Izevel. On the other hand, he also felt that Am Yisrael were not relenting from their evil ways as he had hoped they would. Resigned to the fact that he had nothing further to contribute to the world he asks for Hashem to relieve him of his continued existence within a society in which he found himself to be a stranger.
These ideas are emphasized in his response to Hashem's question "mah lecha poh Eliyahu”, what are you doing here, Eliyahu?" (Melachim Aleph: 19:9) Eliyahu states: “I have been zealous to Hashem, as the children of Israel have left Your covenant, destroyed Your altars and killed Your prophets; yet I am left alone and they are now trying to kill me.”
Eliyahu describes himself as having been zealous for God, as acting on behalf of Hashem who had been abandoned by the Israelite nation. Yet, all he has merited in response to his actions is solitude which emerges from the fact that the people wish him dead. Eliyahu's frustration must be understood based on the events of the previous chapter. Following a showdown between the prophets of Ba'al and Eliyahu, fire descends from heaven after which all the nation cry out "Hashem Hu HaElokim, the Lord is God". Eliyahu, heartened by this outburst of belief, expected it to be followed by a more sincere return to God and possibly a call to replace the evil regime of Achav and Izevel. None of this actually happened and so Eliyahu, disheartened and disappointed, asks to die and, when questioned by God, explains why he feels this way.
The Almighty, however, does not accept Eliyahu's statement and replies with a rather enigmatic message. He instructs Eliyahu to leave the cave and stand at its' entrance.
"God says, ‘Go and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Suddenly there was a whirlwind, ‘tearing the mountains apart and shattering the rocks’. But God was not in the wind. Then came an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. Then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire. Then came a ‘still, small voice’." (ibid 11-12)
The commentators are divided as to how to understand this vision. Ralbag and the Metzudot explain that Hashem conveys to Eliyahu that he should defend Am Yisrael rather than attempt to find fault with their actions. Malbim states that Eliyahu is being told that Hashem appears not merely in fire and wind but also in simpler forms such as a small voice, a "kol d'mama daka". Until now Eliyahu has tried to persuade the nation to return to God by first decreeing a cessation of rainfall which resulted in a drought. In the process of reversing this situation he calls for a demonstration of Divine power after which fire descends from heaven as described above. Hashem now tells Eliyahu that maybe the nation can be taught about God and their connection to him in less dramatic forms. The "small voice" represents the calmer, more soothing way to spread the prophetic word.
It is true that Eliyahu does not really accept the new challenge posed to him by God. In response to the demand from Hashem to employ the "small voice", Eliyahu merely repeats his earlier contention, that he is disheartened and has been outcast by the very people he had hoped to assist. Hashem therefore tells him to perform three actions, one of which was to anoint Elisha as a prophet in his stead. The implication is clear. If Eliyahu will not adapt and attempt to portray the prophetic message in a calmer fashion, then God will find someone who will.
This notion takes us back to Pinchas. By all accounts, Pinchas was a great man, a person of principle who acted against the wrongdoings of those around him. He too is called a zealot, in his case by Hashem Himself. In response to his act of zealotry, God awards him a "brit shalom". Several opinions are offered as to what the nature of this "covenant of peace" may be. One way of understanding it is based on the future events in which we find Pinchas involved. (See Yehoshua, chap. 22 and Shoftim, chap. 20.) We suggest that God is urging Pinchas to use his traits in a positive fashion. Zealousness is an important factor in our Avodat Hashem but it is not always the way to act. We have to know how to channel our passion in the correct way for the good of ourselves and for the benefit of Am Yisrael.
This, then, is a further connection between Pinchas and Eliyahu. Both exhibited great passion in their beliefs. They both acted in a zealous way on behalf of God. And both were told that these characteristics must be used sparingly and carefully for the greater good.
We conclude with the words of The Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks, taken from an article published in The Times in July 2007. I believe his words ring true today, perhaps more than ever.
"In effect God was saying to Elijah: false prophets believe in power. At Mount Carmel you showed that I am a greater power. You defeated idolatry on its own terms. That may be fine for those tempted by idolatry, but that is not who I am. The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.
Elijah, the supreme prophet, had to learn that zealotry is profoundly dangerous. Jewish tradition went further, holding that Elijah would one day return to earth to herald the dawn of an age of peace.
God is not in the fire, or the whirlwind, or the earthquake. Zealotry wins the battle but not the war. It creates fear, not love. It risks desecrating the very cause it seeks to sanctify. Faith speaks in an altogether different voice, urging us, in Robert Kennedy’s fine phrase, to ‘tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’.
Religion fails when it seeks to impose truth by force, whatever the truth, whatever the force. Only when it divests itself of earthly power does faith learn to speak the healing truths of heaven. This applies even to the greatest of the prophets, how much more so to their would-be imitators in lesser times."
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