What does it mean to be a zealot? When is it kosher to be a kanai in the service of our G-d and faith?
My reading of this weeks parsha and the story of Pinchas gives me a surprising answer.
Lets begin at the beginning. You recall from last week's reading that Pinchas slew Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon for his public fornication with Cazbi a princess of Midian. In response, we are told this week, G-d gives him the brit shalom, the covenant of peace.
Listen to the words of the text...."Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron Hakohen restored my anger from the children of Israel when he was jealous for me in their midst and I did not destroy the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore I give him the brit shalom."
The fact that the Hashem uses the word lachayn, 'therefore', implies that the brit shalom was a reward in kind, mida keneged mida, measure for measure. What Pinchas received as a gift from G-d was a direct consequence of his action.
And yet thats surprising. Pinchas's act was one of courage, a devotion to truth, perhaps a manifestation of a great love of G-d. If he was to receive a reward from G-d that followed from his actions we would expect a brit emet, a covenant of truth, or a brit gevura, a covenant of strength, or a brit ahava, a covenant of love....Why a brit shalom? You could call Pinchas's actions many things but "peaceful" doesn't seem one of them.
And yet I believe that on deeper reflection we can see Pinchas's zealotry was commended by Hashem precisely because it was an act at its core for the sake of shalom.
What did the opening verse say about why G-d found Pinchas's actions laudatory. Not because he acted to defend the honor of G-d. That was a consequence not the reason. The reason is because Pinchas removed Hashem's anger from the people. He restored shalom between the people of Israel and their Father in Heaven, The way he did it was through an act of zealotry in the name of G-d. But the reward was for the result. And the result was the restoration of Israel's relationship with G-d.
Zealotry is only commendable when it is meant to foster shalom. Our sages tell us that Pinchas was the same person as Elijah the prophet, also a zealot. Yet at times Eliyahu's kanaut was found wanting by G-d. It did not earn the approval of the earlier zealotry of Pinchas. Why?
The answer is that G-d does not require defenders. He requires peace-makers. When Eliyahu expressed kanaut yes it was motivated by a fierce love of G-d and of truth. But that alone won't justify an zealous act. For zealotry to be in the service of Hashem its purpose needs to be to foster peace between Israel and G-d or at times peace within the community of Israel itself.
Then and only then can an act of zealotry be found commendable.
I cannot think of a more important lesson for us to learn. How often do we feel anguished when someone does something wrong. We want to chastise them, correct them, set them straight.
Often we can barely control ourselves from expressing disdain for their behavior. And we will justify our feelings and actions as motivated by a love of G-d and a devotion to the good.
We may shun them or talk about them as evil and believe we are acting to defend G-d and G-d's truths.
Yet that kind of zealotry and intolerance has no place in the scheme of Torah values. We are not entitled to take Hashem's vengeance. The story of Pinchas teaches us that zealous acts are only warranted when the goal is to foster shalom, to bring about a renewal of relationship between the Jew and his/her Father in Heaven. Then and only then can I treat another in a non-loving way. And even then one needs to be motivated by the yearning for peace.
There is a wonderful story of the Chafetz Chayim I saw in detail in an interesting book The Secret of the Jews: Letters to Nietzsche by David Ben Moshe. I will just share here the essence of the story. A young yeshiva student in Radin went off the righteous path, so much so that he no longer kept Shabbat. The hanhala of the yeshiva was determined to kick him out. Still they thought as a last resort to bring him to see the Chafetz Chayim.
When he enterred the Chafetz Chayim, then a man of 80 walked over to the young man, took his hand in his, and said over and over one word, Shabbos, Shabbos. He then wept real tears, hot tears that dripped onto both of them.
The yeshiva bochur was changed forever.He returned to the yeshiva and to a Torah lifestyle. Peace between him and his Father in Heaven was restored.
That's the model of kanaut we need to aspire to, one that is motivated not by emet, gevura or even ahavat Hashem. But rather one motivated by shalom!
May we learn the real lesson of Pinchas and earn for ourselves a brit shalom by pursuing peace.
For the sake of peace and only peace even kanaut is praiseworthy.