This week’s פרשה contains two of the most famous stories of zealotry in the entire Pentateuch, however one is more obvious than the other. At the beginning, Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen is commended for his zealotry earlier in the פרק where he killed Zimri and Cazby as they openly desecrated G-d’s name in the camp. There, a spade is called a spade as G-d tells Moshe:
פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי, בְּתוֹכָם; וְלֹא-כִלִּיתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקִנְאָתִי.
Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon Hakohen kept My anger from Bnai Yisrael when he exacted My zealous anger onto them, and he didn’t spare Bnai Yisrael from My anger.
Pinchas is saved from reproach for his fast-thinking action when G-d informs the Children of Israel that Pinchas’s zealotry was justified. This serves as an inspiration for many of the Jewish People nowadays to also exert righteous zealotry, whether justified or not.
Further on is another, more subtle story of zealotry, one which isn’t as openly decried, yet one which required even more bravery and yielded even more of a reward to those involved. The five daughters of Zelaphchad, recently orphaned of their father, approach משה to beg him to give them their father’s portion of the land, even before the topic was broached with עם ישראל. The Sifrei writes that we can learn from the seemingly coincidental juxtaposition of the story of בנות צלפחד with these laws of dividing the land that their request caused the issue of division of land in Israel to be brought up with G-d, which was a natural segue to generalizing these laws for all of עם ישראל. This theme also appears once more in Chumash, several perakim earlier in במדבר where the formerly טמא members of the עדה ask Moshe why they were left out of a מצוה, this time the קרבן פסח. When Moshe then asks G-d what exceptions could be made for these individuals, G-d makes a general פסח שני, when anyone who was פסול during פסח can bring the offering a month later, for all of eternity (when the קרבן is brought, of course). Sifrei concludes that these stories highlight the importance of zealotry and advocacy for the sake of מצות- when we push for מצות that we are not initially obligated in, it can lead to unique opportunities in עבודת השם, not just for us but for all of עם ישראל.
I think that the context of בנות צלפחד in פרשת פנחס can teach us a crucial lesson in zealotry. We see in the פרשה two types of zealotry- zealotry for action, and zealotry for מצות. Sometimes, it’s very easy to look at a situation that is wrong and immediately want to take action. However, in our פרשה, only בנות צלפחד’s type of zealotry is generalized for all of עם ישראל- G-d seems to go out of His way to say that פנחס’s קנאה was only good for his specific situation, and not for all cases. We must also be careful to double-think our course of action before pursuing פנחס’s קנאה, because, as British author Salman Rushdie once wrote in his controversial Islamic work The Satanic Verses, “From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”
I believe that there is another lesson to be learned from the story of בנות צלפחד, one that is more specific to their request and their reward. We have seen that zealotry for wanting to do מצות that we are not obligated in can lead to great reward and becoming more involved in that מצוה. Imagine if we are obligated in that מצוה and we take it on a zeal to fulfill it- how much more so would our reward be. Or, as the famous ruling that is used in מסכת ברכות for women and מצות עשה שהזמן גרמה, says “גדול המצווה ועושה יותר ממי שאינו מצווה ועושה.” Zelapchad’s daughters begged for an opportunity to do a מצוה that we can and should do every day- the מצוה of ישוב הארץ. Back then, there was no Jewish Agency or Nefesh B’Nefesh to make their property acquisition easier- they had to go straight to the top and indirectly beg G-d to let them fulfill this important מצוה. But, they were rewarded for their efforts- they received a נחלה and were commended for their zeal and perseverance. In our days, thanks to the חוק השבות (Law of Return), any Jew is entitled to instant citizenship and a host of benefits simply because of their spiritual nationality; no questions asked. This isn’t even a matter of an opportunity being offered to us to do the מצוה of living in ארץ ישראל- Israel is basically begging us to help them help us complete this מצוה. All we have to do is sign on the dotted line, and we will have received everything that בנות צלפחד begged for and more, without even raising a finger. We should take מוסר from בנות צלפחד’s zeal in embracing ישוב ארץ ישראל, and use this חיזוק to fulfill the מצוה at least on the much lower minimum standard by slowly and steadily making our way to the Holy Land, with all of the included guidance and benefits. Even if we can’t make it to Israel, simply thinking about it and having it in our long-term goals can constitute a fulfillment of ישוב ארץ ישראל, and can keep us focused on taking our יהדות to the highest levels.
Whether we use our righteous zealotry to fulfill ישוב ארץ ישראל or for other מצות, we should all be zoche to grow in עבודת השם through these זכויות, and iy”H, this will bring the complete גאולה very soon.