Fighting the “Good” Fight

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aharon the priest has turned My anger away from Bnai Yisrael by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.  Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.  It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of priesthood, because he was zealous for his L-rd and atoned for Bnai Yisrael." (Sefer BeMidbar 25:10-13)

Pinchas, his zealotry, and his reward

Parshat Balak closed with a description of Pinchas’ heroic act.  The men of Bnai Yisrael entered into amorous relationships with the women of Moav.  This led to their entanglement in idolatrous practices.  In response to the nation’s degenerate behavior, Hashem brought a plague upon the nation and instructed Moshe on the steps that must be immediately taken to save the people from destruction. Moshe must mobilize the courts and publicly punish the idolators.  Moshe moved to act and was immediately challenged by an agitator. This agitator publicly liaisoned with a princess of Midyan.  The act was designed to express derision of Moshe and his courts.  Pinchas stepped forward.  Without hesitation, he took the lives of the agitator and his mistress.  The plague was arrested. 

Pinchas acted based upon an unusual law.  In this specific case, a zealot is permitted to execute one who acts against the standards of the Torah.  He does not need to ask the court for authority to act.  In fact, the court cannot authorize the zealot’s behavior.  Were the zealot to ask the court’s permission, it would be denied.  The zealot is permitted to act but must do so completely upon his own initiative. 

Because the zealot acts without the authorization of the court, he is not protected by its authority.  If the person he intends to punish, parries his attack and instead, kills the zealot – in self-defense – he cannot be persecuted for his action. 

In short, the zealot acts on his own authority and, he bares the responsibility for the consequences of his actions.  He hopes to punish a wrongdoer, but if instead, he is injured or even killed, his attacker bares no responsibility for his injury or death.

Parshat Pinchas opens with Hashem’s response to Pinchas’ act of zealotry.   This response has two aspects.  It begins with an analysis of the significance or impact of Pinchas’ behavior.  Hashem tells Moshe that though his zealotry, Pinchas arrested His anger and saved the Jewish people from destruction.  Hashem then describes Pinchas’ reward.  He is given a covenant of peace, and he and his descendants are given a covenant of priesthood.

One of the interesting issues raised by this incident and Hashem’s response to Pinchas’ behavior is the nature of zealotry. Clearly, Pinchas’ reward demonstrates that he acted properly. This means there is a place for zealotry.  But when is zealotry appropriate?  Also, what is zealotry?  Generally, our Sages condemn anger.  Is zealotry an expression of anger but acceptable because it is justified, or is it somehow different from anger and therefore, not included in our Sages’ proscription?  Before addressing these difficult issues, let us consider a more specific problem which will direct us toward understanding the above issues.

The name of the Israelite man who was killed, who was slain with the Midianite woman was Zimri the son of Salu, the chieftain of the Simeonite paternal house.  (Sefer BeMidbar 25:14)

The zealot must act within the law

The above passage reveals the specific identity of the agitator who was executed by Pinchas.  In providing his identity, the passage notes that he was killed by Pinchas along with his paramour.  Rav Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that the passage’s focus on this detail reflects an important law regarding the zealot.  The zealot may only act while the two sinners are engaged in their activity.  Once they have disengaged, the zealot is forbidden from acting.  This seems a strange law.  The zealot is provoked to act because of his intense disapproval of the activity in which the sinners are engaged.  Certainly, these feelings persist as long as the sinners have not been punished.  Then, it should be permissible for the zealot to take action as long as justice has not been carried out.  Why can he only act while the two sinners are actually engaged in their vile activity?

This legal detail is very revealing.  It suggests that the zealot’s strong feeling that the behavior he is observing is loathsome does not provide a legal basis for his actions.  He does not have the right to punish the sinners for their despicable behavior.  Only the courts have this authority.  The zealot may only intervene in order to emphatically and forcefully end the wanton public behavior.  Once the behavior has ended and punishment is required, the zealot must defer to the courts.  If the zealot did not have the opportunity to end the behavior, although he may still be moved by a visceral loathing of the behavior, he may not take action.

This insight addresses one of the issues raised above.  When is zealotry permitted?  This law reflects a fundamental principle that underlies the Torah’s attitude toward zealotry.  It is permitted only within the boundaries of halachah – Torah law.  In other words, the Torah’s treatment of zealotry reflects a paradoxical but undeniable attitude of the Torah.  The Torah allows the zealot to  take a life without consultation with or approval of the courts.  Yet, this does not mean the actions of the zealot are not guided by their own set of specific laws.  Zealotry is not an excuse to give expression to one’s personal feelings and disregard the limits of halachah. The zealot’s actions are bound by their own set of laws and the zealot must act  within these boundaries. 

Zealotry and anger

Let us now return to the question of whether the Torah’s license of the zealot is an exception to its general disavowal of anger.  Rav Avraham Chaim Shur Zt”l suggests that this is indeed the case.  The Torah allows and even approves of anger in appropriate instances.  However, the Torah does limit its expression and places it within bounds. Rav Shur cites a number of texts to support his position.  For example, in Tractate Ta’anit, Raba comments that when a young Torah scholar angers, the Torah is the source of his anger.  Rav Shur explains the intent of this passage.  The young scholar should not be condemned for his anger.  His anger is a justified and even appropriate response to his observation of disregard for the laws of the Torah.

The appropriateness of anger

Maimonides seems to take a different position regarding the appropriateness of anger.  Maimonides explains that most behaviors and character traits are appropriate in moderation.  For example, the Torah encourages a person to enjoy food but condemns gluttony.  However, some desires or traits should not be indulged even in moderation. Among those which are never appropriate is anger.  Maimonides comments that even when a show of anger is appropriate in order to add emphasis to a criticism or rebuke, the anger should be feigned and not real.  In fact, according to Maimonides, Moshe’s sin – for which he was denied entry into the Land of Israel – was his expression of anger toward the people.  In other words, whereas Rav Shur maintains that at times anger is justified, Maimonides insists that anger is one of a small number of responses that should never be indulged.   

The motives of an authentic zealot

In closing, an observation of Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Zt’l is relevant to this discussion. 

Rav Soloveitchik offered an analogy to explain an important aspect of the Torah’s attitude toward zealotry.  He told the story of a homeowner who was troubled by an infestation of mice in his home.  In order to combat the mice, he purchased a cat.  In short order, the cat rid the homeowner of the troublesome mice.  Rav Soloveitchik observed that both the homeowner and the cat shared the objective of eliminating the mice.  However, their underlying motives were very different.  The homeowner would have been even happier if he had never experienced the mice infestation.  However, the cat’s happiness stems from his engaging hunt and conquest.  The cat’s pleasure requires that there be an infestation!

Rav Soloveitchik explained that unfortunately, some individuals delight in confrontation and conflict.  They masquerade as zealots for the honor of Torah but really enjoy confrontation and strife. The zealot who is acting on Torah principles wishes that his actions would not be required.  He responds to a disaster – a public desecration of the Torah’s values.  He would prefer that the desecration not occur and his response not be required.