Last week, Bret Stephens wrote a very powerful article in the Wall Street Journal critiquing the feeble response of the European Union to the recent increase in Islamic terrorist attacks. He wrote about the political mythologies on which modern Europe was built:
“…that the European Union is the result of a postwar moral commitment to peace; that Christianity is of merely historical importance to European identity; that there’s no such thing as a military solution; that one’s country isn’t worth fighting for; that honor is atavistic and tolerance is the supreme value. People who believe in nothing, including themselves, will ultimately submit to anything.”
In response to the great threat it faces, Mr. Stephens suggested that the EU look to Israel as a model of how to successfully defend itself again terrorism:
“The best guide to how Europe can find its way to safety is the country it has spent the best part of the last 50 years lecturing and vilifying – Israel. For now, it’s the only country in the West that refuses to risk the safety of its citizens on someone else’s notion of human rights or altar of peace.”
The state of Israel remains fervently committed to the safety and security of its citizens. As such, and as Mr. Stephens alluded to, Israel is willing to engage in military actions that are zealous, and at times make us feel uncomfortable. As a nation that seeks peace, that has a history of mourning bloodshed, these military decisions should make us uncomfortable. And yet, we recognize that at times they are necessary for the survival of our nation.
This week we read the story of Pinchas, which is a difficult chapter in our theology. Pinchas saw that the people of Bnei Yisrael were dying in multitudes because of their sins. In order to stop the bloodshed, Pinchas commits one zealous act. Pinchas kills the sinning leader, immediately ending the plague that had up until that point claimed 24,000 lives. A simplistic reading of this story paints Pinchas as a religious fanatic who was so motivated by his religious convictions that he kills another Jew. In truth, and upon closer study, that is not what the story of Pinchas is all about. This is a story about the ills of a nation and the willingness of an individual to take the necessary action to avert catastrophe. Bnei Yisrael were sinning with the daughters of Moab and being lured to worship the Baal P’or cult. Moshe, on the orders of God, told the leaders of the nation to kill those who are sinning so that the plague that had engulfed the nation because of these sins would cease. When a leader of Bnei Yisrael continued to sin brazenly in front of the entire nation, thereby intimidating everyone into paralysis and inaction, Pinchas recognized that he needed to act for the sake of his nation.
This story of Pinchas’ action and his brazen zealotry makes many of us uncomfortable. And it should! We are a nation of peace, we are a kingdom of priests, and this act of zealous violence, albeit for the sake of Heaven, should give us pause, to say the least. But we must also recognize that Pinchas committed this action in order to save Jewish lives.
Make no mistake about it, Pinchas’ action does not give anyone license nowadays to kill or even harm another Jew simply if he sees that Jew sinning. The distinction is clear, and cannot be overstated: Pinchas’ case was one where it was clear as day that God was acting supernaturally, killing people because of their sin, and that once the sinning would cease the deaths would cease. Nowadays, we are not prophets and cannot see such unequivocal connection between our sins and the consequences meted out by God. As such, we can never have the clarity that Pinchas had, and may never claim that circumstances necessitate harm against another person. (Note that the halakhic dictum of “kanaim pog’in bo” which may permit vigilante action in the face of certain public sins based on the Pinchas story is extremely limited in practice and according to many Poskim can almost never be done, if at all, for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.)
Still, the sense of meaning and passion that Pinchas practiced over 3,000 years ago and that Israel practices today can be instructive to us in our goal to constantly remain passionate Jews. Things feel novel and exciting when they are new, but as religious Jews we are challenged to maintain a sense of passion even when our days are spent performing the same rituals again and again.
Though Pinchas’ action is one that we mustn’t repeat today, Pinchas’ story teaches an important lesson about being engaged, passionate Jews. What Pinchas teaches us, and what the State of Israel exemplifies in modern times, is that we need to do things that are of existential importance. To feel passionate about our actions and performance of rituals, we need to truly believe that our survival depends on it. Pinchas realized that he needed to do what he did for the survival of his people, to stop the plague, and the state of Israel at this point in history realizes that it has no choice but to fight terrorism with full force. As a nation, consciously or unconsciously, we believe what Golda Meir once said: “We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs; we have no place to go.” That deep-rooted knowledge that the survival of Israel is intertwined with our personal survival provides this first source of passion.
In our own lives, in order to experience passion in our worship and in our communal work, we need to truly believe that our spiritual lives depend on it. And indeed, they do. For if we do not seek to constantly grow spiritually in this world of so many distractions, we will remain stagnant. As we know, anything that is stagnant eventually goes stale and our spiritual well-being is no different.
Second, like Pinchas and the state of Israel, we need to be willing to step out of our comfort zone and do what needs to be done. An article in the Harvard Business Review recently came out entitled, “If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything.” I would add that if we do not push ourselves outside our comfort zones, we won’t grow as individuals, either. May we all recapture a little bit of the zeal of Pinchas, and the determination and courage of the state of Israel in our own lives, and may we succeed in our quest for lives full of meaning and passion.
Last edit: 2 years 8 months ago by Jonathan Muskat.