Virtues of the Zealots by Akiva Sturm


Parashat Pinechas begins with Hashem granting Pinechas a “Berit Shalom,” “covenant of peace”)(BeMidbar 25:12). In this covenant, Hashem promises Pinechas that all of his progeny will enter the Kehunah. This demonstrates Hashem’s gratitude and good will towards him and his family. Pinechas is given such a great gift as a reward for having not hesitated to kill a Jewish man and a Mo’avi princess who publicly engaged in immoral behavior. This action exemplifies Pinechas’ great character trait of zealotry. He was so committed to Hashem that he did not hesitate to kill in order to protect Bnei Yisrael from the sins of immorality and intermarriage.

In the Haftarah (Melachim 1 18:46-19:21) that is sometimes read with Parashat Pinechas, we are introduced to another man who can be classified as a zealot: Eliyahu HaNavi. This Haftarah focuses on the aftermath of Eliyahu HaNavi’s triumph over the prophets of Ba’al, a foreign god, at Har HaCarmel. In that episode, Eliyahu zealously challenges the supporters of Ba’al to a contest of Korbanot: whichever deity accepts the offering would be accepted as the true God. EliyahuHaNavi handily wins the contest by invoking the power of Hashem, and he reaffirms Bnei Yisrael’s trust in Him. Eliyahu then kills all of the blasphemous false prophets. Like Pinechas, Eliyahu is fiercely committed to defending the Jewish nation from the impact of sin. Some Meforashim, such as Ralbag, go even further than comparing the two and explain that the two were actually the same person, both blessed with the quality of zealotry.

Although the Haftarah of Parashat Pinechas appears to be one which praises the quality of zealousness, it actually tells a different story. After the incident on Har HaCarmel, Queen Izevel announces her desire to kill Eliyahu because of his killing of all her prophets. Eliyahu HaNavi escapes to Mount Choreiv where he has an awesome vision. In it, Eliyahu witnesses the loud, powerful drama of wind, earthquake, and fire, but he is told that Hashem is not found in any of these great forces. Rather, Hashem can be found in a “Kol Demamah Dakkah,” “a still, quiet voice” (19:12). In his essay, “Eliyahu and the Still, Small Voice” (2015), Rav Jonathan Sacks points out that both before and after the vision, Eliyahu HaNavi describes himself as a zealot. According to Rav Sacks, when Eliyahu repeats the second time that he is a zealot, he is saying that he does not understand the message of the vision. Hashem appears to Eliyahu within the “Kol Demamah Dakkah” to deliver a critical lesson to Eliyahu: Yes, leaders need to be zealous and proud, as Eliyahu and Pinechas both were. However, they also need to be modest, loving, and compassionate. This is symbolized by Hashem’s appearing in a still, quiet voice rather than through a loud and powerful mode, like wind, an earthquake, or fire. It is good for leaders to be zealous sometimes, but they must also learn to be still and quiet like Hashem.

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