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A Thin Line Between Passion and Zealotry

  • A Thin Line Between Passion and Zealotry

    Chukat - Balak, Numbers 19:1−22:1, 22:2−25:9
D'var Torah By: 

The final nine verses of Parashat Balak, the second parashah in this week's double portion, tell the story of Zimri, who brings a Midianite woman into the Israelite camp for the purpose of having sexual relations with her. Phinehas, a grandson of Aaron, promptly stabs both Zimri and the woman to death. (Numbers 25:6-8) In the following portion, Parashat Pinchas, we are told that Phinehas is rewarded by God with the gift of the hereditary priesthood. (Numbers 25:10-13)

An extensive midrashic literature has developed around this story. Some commentators justify what Phinehas did. They point out that Zimri was involved not only in a flagrant act of sexual immorality in the public square but probably in some form of cultic orgy as well. Such sinful behavior could undo all that Moses and Aaron had worked to accomplish since the Exodus—to build into the communal lives of these former slaves a commitment to the holy. Furthermore, Phinehas's action was motivated by his passion for God and not by selfishness.

Those who condemn Phinehas as a zealot and a killer point out that he ignored legal process; he did not warn the couple of the consequences of their actions; he made no attempt to separate them; he had not been threatened personally in any way; and although he was a witness to the crime, which would normally disqualify him from taking action, he nonetheless appointed himself judge and executioner.

We will not resolve this conflict, but it is important to ask: What is this story really about? The answer: It is about passion for God, and, as the two strands of midrash suggest, the conflicting feelings we have about such passion.

Judaism has always consisted of an uneasy balance between the contemplative and the ecstatic. On the one hand, we study text, which requires objective intelligence and intellectual power. On the other hand, we not only study, we also pray. And when we pray, we sing before God, we pulsate with emotion, and we are filled with exuberance and ecstasy.

If we have a problem today, it is not with the text: We know how to study the text. Our problem is with the passion. Far too many of us have forgotten how to fill the deficit of ecstasy in our lives. We no longer remember how to feel spiritual fervor and passion for God.

Part of the reason is that we are hopelessly modern. Our world discourages behavior that takes us out of ourselves. But in addition, we fear passion for God because—as we see in this story—it so often turns into zealotry. A zealot is someone who detests doubt, fears complexity, and consecrates violence. The story of Phinehas shows us that there is a thin line between a passion for God and murderous zealotry.

But that is precisely our dilemma because passion for God is something we cannot do without. If our Judaism is overly bookish and is unable to express the deep yearnings of our soul for God, then it is a Judaism that will ultimately whither. If our Judaism lacks true spiritual fervor, then our young people will turn elsewhere.

Thus the problem that our portion poses is the following: Can we be truly passionate for God without becoming a zealot? Can we be resolute for the sake of a Judaism that is less than absolute? Can we be certain in our Jewish commitments but not about everything? Can we have a progressive Jewish vision that encourages an all-encompassing passion for God and Jewish life?

The future of progressive Judaism rests on our ability to say "yes" to these questions.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie is the immediate past president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The New Generation: Thirsting Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Davar Acher By: 
Sheva Locke and Ron Avi Astor

In the first half of this week's double portion, Parashat Chukat/Balak, the Israelites are caught between a rock and a hard place. This is true regarding their physical reality, their hopes for the future, and their spiritual outlook. They have wandered through the desert for a generation with high hopes, only to reach a dead end. Behind them lies a vast desert. In front of them await hostile nations that refuse to allow them safe passage to the Promised Land. Physically, right on the edge of a metamorphosis to nationhood, they are stuck. They can't go back to where they once were, nor can they envision their path forward. Moreover, they risk dying of thirst because they have no water.

In the parashah, their water disappears immediately after Miriam's death. (Numbers 20:1, 2) The midrash describes Miriam's well (a mystical spring) as the source of water that quenched the Israelites' thirst through their wanderings in the desert. As long as Miriam was alive, Israel did not thirst physically or spiritually. Hence after her death, although their thirst was physical, it also reflected their hopelessness and a disbelief in God. How can hope emerge from despair? The answer is, by reconnecting with God. Thus it is not by chance that the name of the place where Israel stayed was called Kadesh, which means "to make holy."Kadesh is the place where the transformation of Israel begins—Miriam dies, the well dries up, the nation thirsts, and the new generation starts the process of acquiring independence.

The three siblings (Moses, Miriam, and Aaron) who shepherded the Hebrews through the desert eventually cease to be brokers between God and the new generation. Aaron transfers his priestly role to his son Eleazar and then dies. (Numbers 20:22-29) More important, the "middleman" link between God, Moses, and the people is broken at Meriba (in Hebrew, Meriba means a "quarrel" or a "dispute") when Moses fails to follow God's instructions by choosing not to speak to the rock and instead hits it. Surprisingly, despite Moses' defiance toward God, water still flowed out of the rock. (Numbers 20: 2-13) The Israelites drank the water and both God and the people were sanctified—teaching us that sometimes our deepest spiritual transformations can come from a place that appears to be a dead end.

For the first time since leaving Egypt, the new generation was provided with water directly from God and not from Miriam, Aaron, or Moses. At that moment the new generation understood that God had a direct relationship with them and that water/spirituality was not transmitted via spiritual leaders alone. In this parashah we learn that the older generation must allow their children to create their own relationship with God. In every generation God must renew the berit directly with the Jewish people. Likewise, every Jew must create his or her own berit with God.

As Jewish educators, we must highlight the ways in which our students and their families can create a personal connection with God and our people. We must do our best to shepherd the new generation and their families on their journeys. However, the true test of our people comes when each new generation confronts seemingly insurmountable obstacles and from such "hard places" hope appears miraculously, just as water flowed from a rock.

Sheva Locke is the principal of the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, MI. Ron Avi Astor is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in the School of Education and School of Social Work. They are married and have three children, Maya, Roee, and Shachar.

6/26/1999
Reference Materials: 

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936

Balak, Numbers 22:2–25:9
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,173–1,194; Revised Edition, pp. 1,047–1,067;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 937–960"