Zealous for G-d

When we think of the term “zealous”, it doesn’t always have a positive connotation. Often it can mean pursuit of one goal at the expense of everything else. However, what if the cause for which one is zealous is serving G-d? After all, one of the terms used by Chabad Shlichim to describe themselves is צבאות ה, the army of G-d. G-d also refers to Himself as קנא, an impassioned or zealous G-d, so being zealous is an act of imitatio Dei.

One of the zealots for G-d is mentioned at the beginning of this morning’s Torah portion as well as at the start of every ברית מילה, or bris. “Pinhas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me so that I did not wipe out the Israelites in my passion. Say therefore ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his G-d, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’”[1] Why is it this act that ensures that Aaron’s line will remain Kohanim forever? A Kohen as a servant of G-d is responsible for maintaining the dignity of our holy sites. It is therefore no surprise that the Kohanim are the most zealous in defending our G-d when He is disgraced by idolatry and inappropriate relations. Similarly, it was a family of Kohanim, the Maccabees, who stood up for G-d and Judaism through defeat of the Syrian Greeks. By beginning each Brit Milah with these words from our tradition, we are imploring each Jewish boy to continuing this fight for G-d, even when those around him are disregarding our Torah and our traditions.

In both our parsha and the story of Hanukkah, those who fought for G-d emerged victorious, perhaps because of their passion to perpetuate G-d’s will in the face of others. The Sicari, a group of Jewish zealots who began the Great Revolt against Rome, also had noble intentions. As Josephus chronicles in his book The Jewish War, they revolted after Roman governor Florus stole great amounts of silver from the Temple in Jerusalem. The Sicari were at first greatly successful, defeating the Roman garrison in Jerusalem as well as the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus. Unfortunately, their success could not continue forever, as the Romans poured more and more troops into Judea. Jews engaged in mass suicide, the most famous of which was Masada after the destruction of the Temple. The Sicari had pure motives, but whereas Pinchas acquired everlasting priesthood for his descendants, their action led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Jews from the lands of Judea.

The lesson we learn from Pinchas is that some things are so wrong, going against the core of what we believe, that we MUST take action against them. Fornicating in front of the Holy of Holies was one of these actions that needed to be responded to immediately in that moment. On one hand, we do not want to be zealous about every issue because then we become known as engaging in histrionics and are not taken seriously. On the other hand, we do not want to be zealous for nothing because that means we have no boundaries, that anything goes for us. What we need to do is find times when we take up the torch, as Pinhas did, to show that there are absolutes and lines which we cannot cross. At the same time, we want to look ahead to the end outcome of what we are doing. We do not want to be so zealous that we begin a revolt that we have no chance of winning, like the Sicari did against the Roman Empire.

As we engage in these three weeks of communal mourning, let us think about what we are so passionate for that we would put our lives on the line versus where we are dissatisfied but could live with the status quo rather than undertaking an act of zealotry. It is often difficult to determine this boundary in our daily living; I find it easier to go with the flow, yet at the same time I recognize the dangers in doing so and the importance of taking principled stances. Let us work together on this to ensure that what we stand for makes sense for us and for our community.

We have an example today of one who has stood up for what he believes in, choosing to affirm his beliefs in Judaism and deciding of his own free will to join the Jewish people. Dave-your growth in Jewish observance, your analytic thinking in how to incorporate more aspects of Judaism into your life and your excitement about embracing our faith is some of what we are celebrating today. It has not always been easy for you. First I mentioned to you about needing to talk to your parents and letting them know that you were choosing to embrace Judaism. Then I told you about hatafat dam brit, the three rabbis you would be standing before at the Beit Din and your need to immerse in a mikveh. The way we are supposed to refuse a convert is to say to them “Do you know that Israel in this time is oppressed and afflicted, and trouble comes to them?!”[2] but I felt that telling you about hatafat dam might function as enough of a deterrent. You thought about this and decided it was the path you wanted to follow.

We studied Jewish history, a topic that you love, as well as the Siddur, Kashrut, Shabbat, life cycle events, Tzedakah and the Jewish holidays as they occurred. You also learned how to read Hebrew and now have your own Siddur to continue practicing reading as well as to bring to shul at Syracuse. Nofar attended most of the classes with you, which I loved because it enabled her to continue her Jewish learning and to see where you were at in Hebrew and help you in between lessons. You have gone through all of the steps and are now a Jew, able to count in the minyan, receive an aliyah (as you did for the first time today) while wearing a tallit and to more fully observe Shabbat (which you started doing this month by no longer doing Saturday tutoring). In your example you have truly shown that you are zealous for G-d in all the right ways.

As a measure of our admiration for your accomplishments, it is my pleasure to present to you on behalf of the congregation a mezuzah with a kosher scroll inside for you to affix at your new home in Syracuse. Please also say the bracha for affixing a mezuzah before you do so. I am also pleased to give you a gift, Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE-1492 CE. This has also been made into a 5 part PBS series but I thought you’d appreciate reading the book first. Mazal Tov to Dave, Nofar and the entire family on reaching this joyous day! In order to crystallize the excitement that each of us feels, please turn to Page 841 and continue with me responsively.

[1] Numbers 25:11-13

[2] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah Laws of Converts Chapter 148 Paragraph 2

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