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Proper and Improper Zealotry


Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

Tamuz 14 5779
There is a type of zealotry that comes from limited perspective – one sees only himself, due to egoism. Such a person cannot recognize that others have the ability to think logically and yet arrive at a different conclusion from his own. Such a zealot is offended when someone thinks differently than he, for he assumes that he alone is capable. This is what the people who criticized Pinchas for his zealotry accused him of: "Did you see the son of one who brought fat calves for idolatry?" (Sanhedrin 82b).

However, there is also a totally different type of zealotry, which is focused on the community. He does not react to damage done to him but looks at the negative act’s full effect on a larger community of which both the zealot and the one to whose actions he objects are just passing episodes. When the Heavenly Name is desecrated by an immoral action done publicly, it lowers the whole community from its spiritual state. Those who were inspired with love of Hashem are cooled off, cynicism penetrates. When poison is inserted into the Jewish nation, the individual loses value.

Pinchas endangered himself to be killed (Sanhedrin 82a) as an attempted murderer, and he could have had the stigma of having blood on his hands when he succeeded. He could have been unpopular and ostracized (see Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 9:7). It is impossible to know for sure that an act of zealotry was idealistic unless he is ready to be ostracized. In the case of Pinchas, his action saved the nation.

However, zealotry is dangerous. There are halachic guidelines. It is permitted only if the action actually removes chillul Hashem. It is only if the reaction will return the honor of Hashem by hitting evil at its root and causing others to open their eyes. However, if the immoral activity continues after the zealotry, then the zealotry itself will just increase the desecration of Hashem’s Name. If the criticism of Pinchas had remained, then his action would have had a negative effect instead of opening the eyes of all to the disgusting things being done. Had it been misunderstood, it would have caused negative criticism.

Pinchas is Eliyahu (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 46). Nevertheless, some of Eliyahu’s ways were not appreciated by Hashem. Hashem told Eliyahu: "Hashem is not in the loud noise…" or "the fire," … (Melachim I, 19:11-12). Zealotry can work against a one-time desecration, as it can serve to "clean the air." However, when there is a systematic deterioration, it is possible to rectify the matter only with a step-by-step clarification. Even an effective one-time event, such as Eliyahu carried out on Mt. Carmel, causing the people to call out enthusiastically, "Hashem is the Lord," did not ensure success. After all, Izevel forced him and others to run for their lives. The voices were silenced. The noise and the fire had to be internalized and be replaced by a voice of a gentle silence. If the inspirer takes measured steps and acts pleasantly, he can sanctify Hashem’s name by example. It may not seem as effective, and there will not be a crowd of people cheering, but the impact will be more certain, fundamental, and effective.

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