Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
Pinchas is a Biblical personality who was known for his remarkable passion to serve God. In Numbers 25, we learn how Pinchas drove a spear through the bellies of an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who violated God’s covenant. For his zealotry, Pinchas was granted God’s “pact of friendship” or “Brit Shalom” and Pinchas, and his descendants, enjoyed a pact of priesthood for all time.
As biblical events often do, this one inspires us to value Pinchas’ role in securing the faithfulness of the Israelite people against false gods and idol worship. But, in general, zealotry isn’t prized in Judaism. Zealotry is reserved for biblical stories and the most extraordinary circumstances. How do we know? The word that describes Pinchas’ passion here is the same word used to describe God’s passion in Exodus 20. In the Ten Commandments, God is called “an impassioned God (a jealous God),” “El kanah.” Here Pinchas “took impassioned action for God,” “Kinei l’Eilohav.” K-N-H is the Hebrew root that means impassioned or jealous. Pinchas acted on a level we can only find in the Bible. Frankly, it’s a passion that should only be found in the Bible.
Every religion has had its zealots including Jewish militants and Christian crusaders of the past. Their stories are infamous for their blood and glory, which is exactly how ancient battles and hard-won fights are told and remembered. Unfortunately, ambitious stories of blood and glory aren’t only a function of the past. Contemporary zealots we call fanatics profess allegiance to their own view of the Bible and sacred teachings that offend and destroy conventional custom and modern life. Today’s most obvious zealots are members of ISIS. Their passion, in the name of strict adherence to the Koran and Sharia Law, is frightfully dangerous and destructive. It preserves one small sect of Islam and aims to annihilate all the rest. Today, they stand out as the single-greatest threat to Western civilization.
ISIS’s streak has left space on the “zealous-spectrum” for others to be zealous without appearing to be maniacal or dangerous. Populist movements that have gained footholds in nations across the globe have escaped comparisons to sects or fanatics who want to change the world order. They’re not decapitating their opponents, but they have resurrected or promoted vicious demonstrations of xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, to name just a few. They’ve bled into areas where large swaths of working-class and middle-class Americans, for example, are feeling starved for access to healthcare, education, and fair-minded entitlement programs, not to mention regulations that have preserve clean air, water, and natural resources for all of us.
Frighteningly, leaders of nations haven’t effectively modeled or addressed the symptoms of fanaticism and zealotry. Demonstrations in the streets outside the meeting of the G-20, protests against the KKK who are marching in the streets again, and rallies for causes across America, where they didn’t used to appear nearly as often, are more than signs of discontent. They’re loud and real signs of fear. The gains and footholds that modern Western nations claimed in areas of social justice (healthcare, women’s rights, gay rights, climate change, poverty, etc.) are at risk. They aren’t reflections of liberal zealotry from the other side; they’re the achievements of reasonable and, at best, bipartisan efforts to accomplish what we need to survive in a world of limited natural resources, in a time of globalization, and in a fragile moment where the future rests in some of the world’s most unreliable leaders’ hands.
Pinchas was biblically passionate; he defended the sanctity of God’s name. It’s done. You and I can be passionate, too, but there’s no cause today for which we have to kill, defame, or alienate others. Now is our time to honor God’s name with deeds that bring honor to all God’s creative works.