Pinchas: Any act of zealotry contains the danger of a great sin

Parashat Pinchas. Torah reading is Num. 25.10-30.1 / Haftarah reading is Kings 18:46-19:21.

Summary: Aaron’s grandson Pinchas is „rewarded“ for his act of zealotry: God grants him a covenant of peace and the priesthood. By this, he and his children are serving as messengers between God and his people, fixed in a very tight framework of rituals and obligations, deprived of his/their own actions and his/their own potentialities.
A census of the people counts 601,730 men between the ages of twenty and sixty. Moses is instructed on how the land is to be divided among the tribes and families of Israel. The five daughters of Zelophechad petition Moses that they be granted the portion of the land belonging to their father, who died without sons; God approves their claim and incorporates it into the Torah’s laws of inheritance.

Moses is told to climb the top of the Mount Avarim to see the Promised Land, and is informed again that he will die outside before the children of Israel will conquer it. When Moses requests that his successor be chosen, God tells Moses to appoint Joshua to succeed him and lead the people into the Land.
The Parshah concludes with a detailed list of the daily offerings, and the additional offerings (mussaf) brought on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh (first of the month), and the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret.

The prophet Eliyahu is the main protagonist of this week’s Haftarah. According to tradition, Eliyahu shared the same soul as Pinchas. They both zealously fought on God’s behalf, while disregarding the dangers involved.

DVAR: In the Talmud we find the following story (bShabbat 33b): The Gemara records that because of a degrading comment Elijah had made, the non-Jewish government decreed that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai should be executed. He fled with his son, Rabbi Elazar, to hide in a cave. For 12 years, God miraculously provided them with food and drink, and they spent the entire years engrossed in the study of Torah.

After 12 years, Eliyahu the prophet announced at the opening of the cave that the person who made the decree had died, and Rabbi Shimon’s life was safe. Rabbi Shimon and his son went out to see the light of day for the first time in more than a decade. While they spent this time “climbing to great spiritual heights”, the rest of the world continued in its more mundane fashion. When Rabbi Shimon and his son saw men “wasting” their time on what they viewed as trivial non-spiritual pursuits like ploughing and planting, the Rabbis looked at them with such anger and despite that the farmers were immediately burned by a mystical fire. A Divine voice called out, “Have you left the cave to destroy My world? Return to your cave and atone” Rabbi Shimon and his son returned to the cave for another year.

At the end of the year, they left again the cave. The results were similar, but with one crucial difference. When Rabbi Elazar saw people engaging in earthly matters, he again burned them with his wrath. But this time, Rabbi Shimon looked at them and healed them, explaining to his son, “It’s enough for the world that you and I exist.” One Friday afternoon, they saw a man carrying two bundles of sweet-smelling myrtle in honour of Shabbat. Recognising the devotion of Jews keeping the Shabbat, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar were pacified.

This episode is difficult to understand. If the initial 12 years in the cave placed such a divide between Rabbi Shimon and the rest of the world, how did the additional year changed him up side down? Maybe the additional year brought Rabbi Shimon to a better understanding: the ability to understand and relate to those who aren’t like him and to appreciate them for their good qualities. It is not on us to judge others for being more or less authentic or observant in their Judaism. According to our tradition only a great sinner has to repent for a full year of 12 month in the Gehenom (“Hell”), and the story of the Talmud teaches us that any act of religious zeal contains the danger of a great sin.

There are many ways to be Jewish

Shabbat Shalom

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