Its good to be zealous, but only for His will

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, the High Priest, has been seen as a controversial figure to be sure, but not by his Creator, who rewarded his behavior with a “Covenant of Peace.” (Numbers 10:13)

A devastating plague had been visited on the Jewish nation, with the loss of 24,000 lives, in retribution for their orgy of immorality with the women of Midian and Moab. This licentiousness culminated with Zimri, the prince of the tribe of Simon, publicly having relations with a Midianite woman with the intention of defying the will of G-d.

Pinchas, with righteous indignation, in an act of zealotry for his G-d, picked up a spear and killed Zimri and his partner. This act ended the plague and saved the Jewish people from further calamity. Zimri’s act was open treason against the nation, and if left unchecked and unpunished would have led to the nation’s extinction through seduction to idol worship.

Pinchas was filled with zeal for his G-d. The spectacle of Zimri and his Midianite woman defying the Lord so publicly and so intentionally could not be abided by this very devoted man, and G-d loved and appreciated him for this and rewarded his action.

The word “zeal” is derived from the Greek word that means “to boil.” One who is zealous can be said to be boiling inside with enthusiasm for a cause. The opposite would be one who is cold and indifferent. Many important people have achieved great things because they were zealous in their work. Their zeal was a mighty power that gave them the ability to overcome opposition and avoid becoming discouraged.

As we know, cold water lacks the force of boiling water. Boiling water in the boilers can drive an engine with the steam it gives off. A person who is zealous boils within, generating a force that carries him forward.

Zeal, however, like steam of any force, can be helpful or dangerous. It must be controlled if it is to be useful. We may be rightly or wrongly zealous. In fact, the elders of Israel, unable to be sure of the purity of Pinchas’ motives, were prepared to censure him for his zealotry. G-d, who alone can search out our hearts, declared Pinchas’ zeal worthy, thus calming all doubts about his actions. Boilers must be regulated to avoid explosions, and our zeal must be disciplined to avoid grievous injury upon ourselves or others. History is replete with those who were blessed with brilliant gifts but unfortunately directed their zeal into harmful paths, thereby turning their lives from a blessing to a curse.

How can one control one’s zeal so that it may always work for the good? The answer is to not only be zealous, but to be zealous for the sake of G-d, as was Pinchas. This requires putting forth all of our powers to discern and to do G-d’s will. The Torah enjoins us to love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our might. “All” is the operative word here. If our love for G-d takes up only a small space in our hearts and thoughts it will not be sufficient, because there will be times when our desire for something illicit will be greater than our desire to please G-d.

Throughout our history, Jews have suffered every manner of torture from the rack to being burned at the stake. Zeal has been an important factor in our survival and preservation. With it we were able to accept poverty, exile and many other trials. Jews have so loved their Creator and have been so zealous to do His will that our oppressors were unable to destroy us. The spirit of our belief was so hot within us that our will was too strong to be crushed.

The future of our people is unknown and often appears fraught with danger, but the biggest cause of apprehension is the danger of our cooling, of indifference and halfheartedness replacing burning devotion. If we inherit the zeal and the invincible will of our forefathers, our people will surely live on to achieve our appointed destiny.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.