Thursday, June 01, 2023

Parshat Mattot concludes the saga started in Parshat Balak with the Jews’ slaying of the Midianites in revenge for their evil plan of trying to seduce the Jewish People to sin. At the head of the army, according to Rashi, was Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, who stopped the sinning in an act of zealotry at the end of Parshat Balak, stopping a Jewish prince and Midianite princess who had begun sinning in front of the entire nation and the terrible plague that had begun to ravage the Jews. The Jewish leaders then were at a loss for what to do—the passuk says all they could do was cry in the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.” But, one man stood up and carried out the difficult, yet necessary task of stopping the plague by stopping the sinners very forcefully. Then, our parsha immediately jumps to God’s positive reaction to Pinchas’s zealotry, praising his quick thinking, without a word describing the Jews’ reaction to this sudden action.

In our day and age, where not a single act of vengeance or zealotry can be executed without mass international and local condemnation or support, we cannot help but wonder about this suspicious absence—how did the Jews of the desert react to Pinchas’s zealotry?

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (82b) fills in this gaping hole in our storyline by painting the scene for us on the Plains of Moab. Pinchas has just violently executed an idol-worshipping, publicly sinning couple and stopped a plague that had already killed 24,000 people. Yet, the people were not pleased. In fact, they found his zealotry almost hypocritical. Given the Jews’ track record, it might not even be a stretch to say that they may have wanted to gather en masse to protest and castigate this “sinning zealot.”

In the midst of this, God calls out to Pinchas, calling him specifically the grandson of Aharon (and not the idol worshipping priestess), and praised him for bringing peace. The “Pinchas Ben Elazar Ben Aharon Hakohen” expression that we all know so well from the brit milah ceremony is no coincidence—Pinchas lived up to his paternal grandfather by being a “Rodef Shalom,” by actively pursuing peace, even at the cost of the lives of two vile sinners. His zealotry saved the Jews from being wiped out by a plague, and God rewards him greatly with His “Brit Shalom,” which is interpreted by commentators as anything from peace from retribution for his zealotry, to meriting his lineage becoming the Kohen Gadol. This explains why God was so quick in His support for Pinchas- to stop another tragedy from happening to the hero who prevented a tragedy.

Hearing about zealotry and mob mentality, one cannot help but think of recent events, as six Jewish extremists were arrested recently for the murder of 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khbeir. At the time of this writing, not much is known about them, though most of the world has already decided that it was a nationalistically motivated crime. In terms of religion, many could think that these six murders are zealots, trying to kill evildoers like Pinchas. However, there is an important distinction between Pinchas’s action and these Jews’ crime, which can help us pinpoint what zealotry actually is.

Pinchas was faced with a difficult situation—with the death toll rising and the Jewish elders not doing anything, Pinchas intervened, albeit violently, to save lives for peace. This is the textbook definition of Jewish zealotry—taking extreme steps to ensure peace, even if guilty parties must be killed in the process.

Based on this, the six Jewish murders were clearly not zealots—while their actions may have been reactive to the cold-blooded murders of Eyal, Gil’ad and Naftali (Hy”d), Muhammad Abu Khbeir’s death has caused nothing remotely resembling peace. In fact, it was probably planned to incite violence, to start Muslim riots to force the Israeli government to react with force, hurting Muslims who were not necessarily responsible for the murder of our boys. This is not zealotry—this is provocation, and while the international world has already condemned us for these Jews’ crimes, we too have the responsibility to condemn their crime, for the ends do not justify the means unless we are pursuing peace, rodef shalom.

Last week, the seeds of the next international media circus and political conflict were planted with the launching of Operation Protective Edge. Limited international support (with President Obama’s constant reminder of the importance of “restraint”) have begun to come in, and condemnation from within and without will inevitably follow. In case we ourselves doubt the importance of this operation, we do not need to think about the unbearable days of tens of rockets falling into the south of Israel every few hours. We do not need to remember that the terrorist organization firing these warheads is the one that abducted and killed our three murdered brothers (z’l).

All we need to do is think about why Israel is undertaking this (hopefully) extensive operation—it is in the spirit of true Jewish zealotry, in Aharon’s style of “Ohev Shalom V’Rodef Shalom.” The Jewish state of Israel has been “loving peace” for many decades, constantly giving in to ridiculous concessions for the sake of long-awaited peace (many of which are directly responsible for recent tragedies and attacks), but now is the time for “pursuing peace,” the time for zealotry by neutralizing Hamas for good, and ensuring that the more than 60% of the country in firing range (including me) can continue their normal lives without fear of attack.

May Hashem watch over our soldiers as they undertake this difficult operation so that our generation can merit true peace, very very soon. Shabbat Shalom.

Tzvi Silver is an Israel Correspondent for The Jewish Link of Bergen County, and an engineering student in the Lev Academic Center in Jerusalem. His divrei Torah are published weekly on the Times of Israel and on his website tzvichaim.wordpress.com.

By Tzvi Silver

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