Parshat Pinchas continues the narrative of the previous sedrah, where a Jewish prince and Midianite princess had begun sinning in front of the entire nation and a terrible plague begins to ravage the Jews. The Jewish leaders are at a loss for what to do- the passuk says all they could do is “והמה בוכים פתח אוהל מועד– and they were crying in the entrance to the Tent of Meeting” (במדבר כה:ו). But, one man stood up and carried out the difficult, yet necessary task of stopping the plague by stopping the sinners very forcefully. Then, our parsha immediately jumps to G-d’s positive reaction to Pinchas’s zealotry, praising his quick thinking, without a word describing the Jews’ reaction to this sudden action.
In our day and age, where not a single act of vengeance or zealotry can be executed without mass international and local condemnation or support, we cannot help but wonder about this suspicious absence- how did the Jews of the desert react to Pinchas’s zealotry?
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (פב:) fills in this gaping hole in our storyline by painting the scene for us on the Plains of Moab. Pinchas has just violently executed an idol-worshipping, publicly sinning couple, and stopped a plague that had already killed 24,000 people. Yet, the people were not pleased. In fact, they found his zealotry almost hypocritical. “Your (Pinchas’s) grandmother was a priestess for Avoda Zara (referring to his maternal grandmother, a former Egyptian idol minister),” they cried, “who are you to kill idol worshippers.” Given the Jews’ track record, it might not even be a stretch to say that they may have wanted to gather en masse to protest and castigate this “sinning zealot.” In the midst of this, G-d calls out to Pinchas, calling him specifically the grandson of Aharon (and not the idol worshipping priestess), and praised him for bringing peace. The “פינחס בן אלעזר בן אהרון הכהן” expression that we all know so well from the brit milah ceremony is no coincidence- Pinchas lived up to his paternal grandfather by being “רודף שלום,” by actively pursuing peace, even at the cost of the lives of two vile sinners. His zealotry saved the Jews from being wiped out by a plague, and G-d rewards him greatly with His “בריתי שלום,” which is interpreted by commentators as anything from peace from retribution for his zealotry, to meriting his lineage becoming the Kohen Gadol. This explains why G-d was so quick in His support for Pinchas- to stop another tragedy from happening to the hero who prevented a tragedy.
Hearing about zealotry and mob mentality, one cannot help but think of recent events, as six Jewish extremists were arrested this week for the murder of sixteen-year-old Muhammad Abu Khbeir. At the time of this writing, not much is known about them, though most of the world has already decided that it was a nationalistically motivated crime. In terms of religion, many could think that these six murders are zealots, trying to kill evildoers like Pinchas while leaders are paralyzed and have not done anything to stop the plague. However, there is an important distinction between Pinchas’s action and these Jews’ crime, which can help us pinpoint what zealotry actually is.
Pinchas was faced with a difficult situation- with the death toll rising and the Jewish elders not doing anything, Pinchas intervened, albeit violently, to save lives for peace- he wanted to bring שלום, and successfully did so, earning himself a ברית שלום and bringing peace to the nation. This is the textbook definition of Jewish zealotry- taking extreme steps to ensure peace, even if guilty parties must be killed in the process. Based on this, the six Jewish murders were clearly not zealots- while their actions may have been reactive to the cold-blooded murders of Eyal, Gil’ad and Naftali (Hy”d), Muhammad Abu Khbeir’s death has caused nothing remotely resembling peace. In fact, it was probably planned to incite violence, to start Muslim riots to force the Israeli government to react with force, hurting Muslims who were not necessarily responsible for the murder of our boys. This is not zealotry- this is provocation, and while the international world has already condemned us for these Jews’ crimes, we too have the responsibility to condemn their crime, for the ends do not justify the means unless we are being רודף for שלום.
On early Tuesday morning, the seeds of the next international media circus and political conflict were planted with the launching of מבצע צוק איתן, Operation Protective Edge. Limited international support (with President Obama’s constant reminder of the importance of “restraint”) have begun to come in, and condemnation from within and without will inevitably follow. In case we ourselves doubt the importance of this operation, we do not need to think about the unbearable days of tens of rockets falling into the south of Israel every few hours. We do not need to remember that the terrorist organization firing these warheads are the ones who abducted and killed our three murdered brothers (Hy”d). All we need to do is think about why Israel is undertaking this (hopefully) extensive operation- it is in the spirit of true Jewish zealotry, in Aharon’s style of “אוהב שלום רודף שלום.” The Jewish state of Israel has been “loving peace” for many decades, constantly giving in to ridiculous concessions for the sake of long-awaited peace (many of which are directly responsible for recent tragedies and attacks), but now is the time for “pursuing peace”, the time for zealotry by neutralizing Hamas for good, and ensuring that the more than 60% of the country in firing range (including myself) can continue their normal lives without fear of attack.
May Hashem watch over our soldiers as they undertake this difficult operation so that our generation can merit true peace, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.