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Zealous for God

  • Zealous for God

    Pinchas, Numbers 25:10−30:1
D'var Torah By: 

The rabbis paired each weekly Chumash reading with a complementary prophetic reading. If you read the pairs carefully, you will find the common thread that joins them. The link may be expressed or implied; it may be a few words or a general idea. But it is there, somewhere.

This week the theme appears to be zealotry--not mere activism but zealotry. At the end of the previous portion, we read that Pinchas, Moses' great-nephew, took his spear, charged into a tent, and, with one thrust, dispatched a sinning Israelite man and his Midianite lady friend. Pinchas was acting zealously for God and following Moses' express command to kill those Israelites who had become fond of an idolatrous and lewd lifestyle. This week Pinchas the zealot receives the covenant of peace and everlasting priesthood. He is an honored hero.

Then, the haftarah. We encounter Elijah, patron presence at the berit milah, welcome guest at the seder, herald of the Messiah. Elijah had also been zealous for God. He had killed hundreds of idolatrous prophets after demonstrating graphically that they preached a false faith. Because the bloodshed angered Queen Jezebel, Elijah had to run for his life, and he hid in a wilderness cave. There he tells God how zealous he had been for the true faith, and there he eventually hears God in the still small voice.

What is zealotry? Our translations often use the word jealous instead of zealous. In our modern idiom, the word zealous implies eagerness and ardor, yet the biblical figures exhibited more than that. The word jealous implies elements of suspicion and intolerance, but biblical jealousy goes deeper.

Clearly, there is something else involved. Behind jealousy or zealotry, we discover anger. The anger is fierce, uncompromising, and all-consuming. Anger--an emotion as old as humanity--must have animated both Pinchas and Elijah.

There is still much to be angry about in our world today: injustice, hunger, even the substitution of political agendas for moral truths or Jewish values. Each of us can extend the list ourselves. If you are going to be a zealot for any cause, you will have to work up an anger that will clarify your thought and refine your focus. For those who aspire to be zealots for God, please remember a few things about your anger.

First, anger is a powerful emotional laser: Be careful how and where you direct it. It is not for use against the young, the weak, or the helpless. Nor should it ever be turned on oneself. The Talmud says that how we handle anger provides a major insight into our personalities.

Second, anger is exhausting. You can't be zealous all the time. Pinchas and Elijah acted in a burst of ardor, and then the anger died away. Anger held too long is transformed into bitterness and isolation.

Third, anger requires control. It can easily get out of hand and invade or infect every part of one's life. You have to know very clearly what purpose your anger serves. When angry, be very sure of your moral ground: Anger requires ethical guidance at all times.

True zealotry flourished in the Bible. It is rather out of fashion now. But we still have it's basic ingredient-anger. Just be careful to assess your moral position before you get angry. Not only can you cause great hurt, you can also hurt yourself.

Zeal: Anger or Passion
Davar Acher By: 
Alan E. Litwak

Biblical Hebrew is terse. There is an economy of words in the Bible that poses difficulties for the modern translator. One word in Hebrew can have multiple meanings in English. Such is the difficulty when we speak about the word kinah, which is defined as jealousy. We find it in this week's Torah and haftarah portion, describing the actions of Pinchas and Elijah, respectively. I believe Dr. Passamaneck is correct in stating that the kinah described here stems from anger. Both Pinchas (in the Torah) and Elijah (in the haftarah) act out of genuine anger toward those who have transgressed God's word. However, I respectfully suggest that kinah can originate in something other than anger. It is a broad term that can be used to express zealous feelings of or actions stemming from not just anger but also passion, jealousy, and obsession.

Biblical translators choose words based on context, as well as a desire to denote a particular understanding. By looking in other places of the biblical canon, we can find different meanings for a word. Therefore, let me share some examples of the Bible's use of kinah.

In Isaiah (26:11) the prophet describes the sinful nations who should "be shamed as they behold Your kinah for Your people and fire consuming Your adversaries." While the Book of Isaiah is filled with chastising and apocalyptic statements, I hardly think that is the case in this instance. I believe that Isaiah is contrasting the fiery fate of those who do not follow God with that of those who will be rewarded with God's passionate concern. This kinah of passion is not reserved for God. Psalm 69:10 states, "My kinah for Your [God's] house has been my undoing." Here, the Psalmist is describing a devout servant of God who feels he is suffering. The servant is clearly angry with his situation. However, his kinah is zeal grounded in religious loyalty. It is certainly not anger directed toward God.

Dr. Passamaneck suggests that in order to be true zealots, we must work up an anger that will clarify our thoughts or refine our focus. It is the rare individual who can articulate his or her position through anger. More often we hear about the angry zealot who acts irrationally, without weighing the relative consequences of his actions. Think of Yitzhak Rabin's assassin. The passionate zealot cannot always think clearly. Think of Romeo and Juliet. This is not to say that zealotry based on anger or passion is necessarily bad: It can also be a good thing. It can motivate us to act.

We can be passionate about our beliefs. We can even be angry about what we witness in the world. But, as Dr. Passamaneck advises, when we are moved to zealous action, we must be careful. Our words and deeds must be steered more by our moral compass than by unchecked emotion that is grounded in anger or passion.

Some questions to think about and discuss:

  1. Was the anger demonstrated by Pinchas's and Elijah's zealotry justifiable?
  2. About what in this world are you passionate?
  3. How do you demonstrate zeal in your everyday life?
Reference Materials: 

Pinchas, Numbers 25:10–30:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,194–1,215; Revised Edition, pp. 1,072–1,094;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545–568