Capturing – and Moderating – Religious Zeal

This week’s perasha raises a fundamental question: What is the place of zeal in the Jewish tradition?

Pinhas’ zeal and quick-thinking surely saved the Jewish people, but what are the boundaries of such zeal?  Within what parameters is religious fervor acceptable?

One of my favorite commentaries is that of Rabbi Nebenzhal, who lives in the Old City of Jerusalem.  A leader in the realm of Jewish ethics, the rabbi points out the wording of the verse in which G-d awards Pinhas with the “Kehuna”, the priesthood.  Why? “He expressed his zeal for me (in their midst),” G-d declares.

In other words, Pinhas was truly altruistic.  He was not motivated by a personal agenda, but by what was in the best interests of the G-d of Israel and His nation.  Were he not to have reached this lofty spiritual level, Pinhas’ actions would have been condemned and his name would have lived on in infamy.

Pinhas stands in sharp contrast to Shimon and Levi, whose zeal led to the fiasco in Shechem.  The brothers were roundly condemned by father, Ya’akov:

Let my soul not enter their plot; let my spirit not unite with their meeting, for they have killed men with anger….
I will separate them in Yaakov and disperse them within Yisrael.

According to our tradition, this verse foreshadows the descendants of Shimon and Levi becoming teachers of Torah and sofrim, scribes.  Shimon and Levi’s descendants were destined to disseminate Torah throughout the Jewish world!

The obvious question is why would two tribes, whose leaders showed poor judgement that nearly endangered our people, would be put in charge of Jewish ritual needs and Torah education?

Rabbi Nebenzhal answers: Deep down, the zeal which Shimon and Levi displayed could have been channeled in a positive direction. It’s just that they were too undisciplined.  Their zeal took them off course.  

In the future, though, Jews throughout Israel and the Diaspora would become weary…and sometimes less than inspired.  Ya’akov understood that having Shimon and Levi gear their talents towards Jewish education could become a WIN-WIN situation:   By being “dispersed”, Shimon and Levi’s zeal could be ‘toned down’  by other Jews less “driven” than Shimon and Levi.   Anchored by a “down to earth” community, the heirs to their zeal, in turn, could inspire others towards greater Jewish engagement.

Shabbat Shalom!

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