Parshat Pinchas presents us with the difficult and morally agonizing episode of Pinchas killing of Zimri and Cozbi in the name of God. Pinchas is rewarded by God by being awarded the “Brit Shalom”. On the surface one would think that God is rewarding Pinchas for his act of zealotry.
Is zealotry a quality that the Torah encourages? Was the behavior of Baruch Goldstein legitimate and even to be praised because of his zealotry? What about the behavior of Yigal Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin (z”l)? Ought he to have been rewarded for his act of zealotry? Perhaps more important – what about the zealots of Hamas or Hizbolah who ostensibly are acting in the name of God, that His will be done? Ought we to be able to rationalize violence on the basis of religious beliefs? How we to understand the text and what is the message that the text wishes to present?
Talmud Sanhedrin (Mishna9.6/82a) deals at great length with the question of zealotry, setting up parameters as to when it is permissible. But Harav Kook gives us an interesting portal into understanding the act of zealotry. It is a rule of law that one is not instructed to perform, because it requires a level of spirituality of the highest order. If the intention isn’t absolutely pristine then the act of zealotry is considered murder.
This episode of Pinchas thus becomes instructive. The Torah isn’t presenting us with a license for zealotry, nor do we have an obligation to act out of zealotry. Rather there is an unstated granting of permission by default if one’s motivation is of the purest spiritual quality. The Torah does not support or command that one should behave as a zealot. Pinchas acted on his own initiative and not commanded by God. It was only after the fact and as a result of the purity of his intent that he was granted the Brit Shalom not as a reward but as a means by which Pinchas was vindicated.