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.