What It Means to be Zealous For God: A Lesson from the Bible's Zealots | Aleph Beta

What Does It Mean To Be Zealous For God?

A Lesson From The Great Zealots In The Bible

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

The midrash tells us that Pinchas, the title character of this parsha, and Eliyahu, the prophet of Kings, are one and the same. In this week's parsha video, Rabbi Fohrman compares these two characters and asks, what does it mean to be zealous for God?

To learn about the original act of zealotry, watch the Ki Tisa course referenced in this video: "Moshe's Benevolent Chutzpah."

For premium members, Rabbi Fohrman dives deeper into this topic in his course "Elijah: What Is A Defender Of God?"


This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Pinchas.

I want to talk to you this week about zealotry, taking matters into your own hands, doing things to uphold the honor of God that God himself has not commanded.

Who Were the Great Zealots in the Bible?

This of course is what Pinchas does, killing flagrant offenders, Zimri, a highly placed Jewish official who commits an inexcusable act of public intimacy with a Midianite woman by the name of Cozbi. It's a time when in general the Jews are being seduced towards idolatry and towards licentiousness with the daughters of Midian.

The Master of the universe expresses anger, everything is falling apart. The leaders who have allowed this to happen need to be killed, God says, and in that breach, Pinchas acts, killing Zimri and Cozbi in the moment. No one commanded him to do it, he did it on his own and the aftermath of that act, we are told about the rewards so to speak that Pinchas is given by God. Hineni noten lo et briti shalom, 'I am going to give Pinchas my covenant, I am going to give him peace'.

It seems like a strange kind of thing, I mean Pinchas's act was violent and of all things he gets a covenant of peace. He was involved in the opposite of peace. We might try to wiggle out of this by saying that well, his act was a violent act and God was sort of opposed to it, so it was kind of chastisement of Pinchas in a way but that doesn't seem to the plain sense of the verse. God seems to be very, very happy with what Pinchas did. Why of all things is God giving him a covenant of peace?

I would like to start by pointing out that there was another great zealot portrayed in the Bible and it is Elijah the Prophet.

Interestingly our sages tell us that Elijah and Pinchas were actually the same person. Whether they mean that Pinchas never died or that he was reincarnated or was just they shared the same kind of central spirit, I cannot tell you but these two people seem to be the great zealots in biblical narrative.

Let's look at Elijah first. Elijah acts with zeal on behalf of God, right when we first meet him and in many ways of circumstances that those times were similar to those of Pinchas. In response to the mass idolatry at that time period, he unilaterally proclaimed the drought and does so to uphold God's honor, the honor of God has been debased.

The sages, in explanation of Elijah's actions, tell a story of a conversation in which Achav, the King of Israel at the time of Elijah, tells Elijah that he doesn't understand, God promises in Deuteronomy that if the Jews worship idolatry, there won't be rain in the land – but there's plentiful rain. At which point Elijah stands up for the honor of God and says 'No, by the life of God there won't be anymore rain' and there's no more rain. Elijah was the other great zealot in the Bible.

The Differences Between the Bible's Zealous Characters

But strangely God treats Elijah very differently than God treats Pinchas. Whereas Pinchas seems to meet with nothing but approval. It is questionable whether that's so with Elijah. Now it is true God goes along with the drought, there is no rain once Elijah declares this but ultimately God puts an end to that.

There comes a time when God says, 'Elijah, the jig is up, there's got to be rain' and after the rain comes, Elijah goes on a strange journey, the journey of all places to Mount Koori otherwise known as Sinai. A journey where he doesn't eat and he doesn't drink for 40 days and 40 nights.

There was another person who has spent 40 days and 40 nights of Sinai without packing lunch before and end. It seems like Elijah is mimicking Moshe's experience. Why he would do so? That's a good question and we will come back to that in a moment but in this reprise of Moshe's experience at Sinai, God comes to Elijah and asks what he's doing there, why he came to the mountain? And here's his answer, he said, kano kineti laHashem Elokei tzibaot, 'I have acted jealously on behalf of God, the lord'. Ki azvu beritecha, 'Left behind your covenant, God' and then strangely God asks Elijah again. 'What are you doing here Elijah?' Elijah answers the same thing again and the next thing God says, 'it is time for your retirement'. V'et Elisha ben-shafat meavel mechola timoshach lenavi tachtecha, 'and Elisha, he will be the next prophet after you'. Why is Elijah being retired and why did he go to anyway? What was he doing in Sinai?

So I would like to suggest a possible answer here and the answer really boils down to two words that Elijah said, that are spelled exactly the same way as the two words that the Torah uses with respect to Pinchas. Kano kineti, 'I have acted jealously'. Those same letters appear with respect to Pinchas. God says, commenting on Pinchas's act that he acted wonderfully bekano et kinati 'in expressing my jealousy'. The word kana can mean either zeal of jealousy, depending on the context.

So it is fascinating, it's exactly the same words, just vowelized differently, maybe that indeed has something to do with why the sages say Pinchas and Elijah expressions of the same core energy but the key, perhaps to understanding the differences between these two men, why are they held with so differently by God, may lie in the transition or the transformation of bekano et kinati to kano kineti.

Indeed these two different expressions of the same Hebrew consonants may neatly summarize for us the differences between Pinchas and Elijah. Let me explain what I mean by this by getting back to that question of what Elijah was doing at Sinai to begin with.

The First Act of Zealotry in the Bible

Sinai is where the very first act of zealotry ever took place within Jewish history. At the moment that the Torah was being revealed because at that moment, there was an act of idolatry too. The Jews were worshiping the golden calf and in that moment, an act took place which would define forever more the parameters of kina, of human action, expressing divine jealousy.

Here is the background, lech red, God says to Moshe, 'Go down the mountain', ki shichet amcha, 'your people have sinned'. Moshe responds, 'What do you mean my people have corrupted, they aren't my people, it is Your people! You took them out of Egypt and anyway, God', lamah Hashem afecha beamecha, 'why should you be angry with Your people?'

Now, that seems to be an outrageous claim, the people are dancing around the calf and Moshe has the temerity to say you can't get angry! We discussed this back in Parshat Ki Tisa, I will refer you to that video for more extended discussion of this but the next thing that happens, is truly amazing.

Here is Moshe who just had the gal to tell the Master of the universes that you can't be angry! The next thing that happens is Moshe goes down the mountain, he sees the calf and the very next words Vayichar af Moshe, and Moshe became angry. You just told God that anger isn't appropriate, so what are you getting angry for?

Moshe then takes the two luchot that were in his hands and smashes them at the foot of the mountain. Did God tell him to do it? No, he is acting unilaterally, he is taking tablets that God crafted. He is taking that incredible gift and he is breaking it, smashing on his own without being commanded to.

I would like to suggest that paradigmatic act of kina, of human expression of divine anger, and the subsequent acts of both Pinchas and Elijah derive in some way from almost different interpretations of this act – it is as if that fundamental act at Sinai was a touchstone for both Pinchas and Elijah.

Indeed, it was at the Ten Commandments itself, that which was given at top of the mountain on those 40 days and 40 nights, that God first declared himself a Kel Kane, 'a jealous God', a God who will not abide by idolatry. Moshe now expresses that jealousy and in a way, that expression of jealousy becomes the precedent for both of the act of Pinchas and the act of Elijah, depending on how you interpret the golden calf itself.

Here is how Elijah, the man who went back to Sinai, might have interpreted it. Moshe did something that he was not commanded to do, he lead and God followed, he unilaterally destroyed the tablets and I, Elijah, I unilaterally declare this drought. I am defending God's honor as Moshe did. That's one way to see it. But there is another way to see it. It is a way that we might argue that it's suggested by Pinchas.

In the aftermath of the golden calf episode, God stood ready to destroy the entire people just as God stood ready to destroy the leaders at the time of Pinchas. Lech red, he told Moshe, 'Go down', veacholeiotam karagah, 'I will destroy them in an instant'. Moshe tells God you must not be angry but then, Moshe goes down the mountain and Moshe is angry.

It is not an act of hypocrisy, it makes perfect sense.

What It Means to Be Zealous for God

What Moshe was telling God is of course anger is wanted here but You cannot be angry. I can be angry, leave Your anger to me. Moshe knew something very, very deep.

Moshe was a partner as is it were a human partner with the Divine in taking the Jews out of Egypt. Now when it's all gone wrong, God and Moshe's mutual offspring as it were, the Jewish people were worshiping a calf at the bottom of the mountain when they should have been standing ready to accept the Torah. It was the moment when anger on part of the Divine couldn't be avoided. The question is how would that anger be expressed.

I want to give you an analogy, imagine that a father and a mother have a child and the child commits a shockingly egregious, upfront to both of them. Imagine that in this relationship, one of the spouses is more powerful than the other. Let's say the father for the moment, the father heads for the child's room. The mother knows the power of father's anger and fears for the child. So she heads off the father and says to him, let me handle this, let me express our anger on behalf of both of us. Mother and father are an unit, one can act on behalf of the other.

Mother's anger can be on behalf of both of them but mother's anger is safer, mother knows that in order for this plan to be effective, she has to genuinely be as angry as she possibly can. Moshe knows that he has to be as angry as he possibly can. He convinces God, so to speak, do not think this isn't a legitimate expression of anger, look at what I have done! I have done it to your tablets, I have smashed them in the mountain, I am outraged but my outrage is much safer. You are the Master of the universe, you are the Infinite God. Infinite power is a dangerous thing when it comes to poor, mortal human beings. Let me express your anger, and because Moshe acted this way, peace was achieved. An inanimate object, the tablets, were destroyed. The people lived.

Defining Good and Bad Zealotry in the Bible

There are two kinds of zealotry, one is Elijah's. But Elijah's did not come in a moment when God had decreed destruction upon the people. It was Elijah, who standing up with what he perceived was the honor of God to be. That's kano kineti, I acted jealously on God's behalf. God ultimately retires Elijah.

Jealousy that is fundamentally a human being's jealousy, even in the Divine interest, God has limited tolerance for – but there's another type of zealotry, that God will not retire, that God loves abundantly, a kind of zealotry that ironically brings peace. That's an attempt to save.

It is not when you stand up for what you think God's honor is, it is bekano et kinati, it's the zeal of Pinchas, who interned learned from Moshe what it means to feel the jealousy of God. This kind of jealousy is not initiated by a human being – it is shared by a human.

That kind of anger is in fact, ironically an act of peace. It is the decision of the weaker partner to fully express the anger of the stronger partner because it is the only safe thing that can be done. It is the only way that peace can actually be preserved.

Pinchas kills Zimri and Cozby but does so to save everyone else. He expresses divine anger genuinely but in its weakest form and in doing so, he brings peace to the nation and a covenant of peace to himself, forever.

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