Parsha Pinchas: Zealotry… What does that even mean?

tour-de-france-244348_640This week we read parsha Pinchas (Pinechas, PhineasPinhas, or Pin’has) which is the name of Aaron’s grandson (presumably a name of Egyptian origin.)  Pinchas consists of Numbers 25:10–30:1.  You can read a very brief summery here.

“Pinchas” picks up where “Balak” left off.

Israelites are whoring themselves to Moabite women which led to them engaging in idol worship and attaching themselves to Baal-Peor (the god of Peor – a location).  God tells Moses to publicly kill all the ringleaders so as to stop God’s wrath (there was a plague killing thousands of Israelites due to their recent transgressions.)  Moses however does not give that order as God directed.

Instead, Moses conferences with his officials (who themselves may have been considered “ringleaders”) and orders them to kill “those of his men who attach themselves to Baal-Peor.”  This is when Zimri, the son of an Israelite leader, publicly takes Cosbi, the daughter of a Midianite (Moabite) leader, to have sex with her… and presumably also “attach” himself to Baal-Peor.  Again, this was a deliberate, public spectacle.

Everyone including Moses witnesses Zimri’s defiance and rebellion.  But neither Moses nor the officials do anything to stop it.  So, Pinchas acts without hesitation and kills both Zimri and Cozbi… Thus stopping the plague which had already killed 24,000 souls.

Then parsha Pinchas begins.  And one of the words used in translation at the beginning of Pinchas stirs up a lot of controversy:

Exodus 25 (NIV):

10The Lord said to Moses, 11“Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

So the Lord Himself says that Pinchas was a zealot.  But what does that mean?  Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be zealous?

Without at doubt, in our modern parlance “zealotry” has a negative connotation. “He is a religious zealot” is used as a pejorative.  But should it be an insult?  What about the word “patriot”?  A lot of people use the term to mock those who have a particular love of country.  For instance, “He’s a flag-waving patriot” is said as an insult in many circles today.  Maybe people don’t know what these words mean.  And maybe the word “zealous” is there for a very special reason.

Part of what makes Torah study fascinating is figuring out “why did God put this word in the Torah and not that?”

What exactly is the word for “zealous” used here?

פינחס בן־אלעזר בן־אהרן הכהן השיב את־חמתי מעל בני־ישראל בקנאו את־קנאתי בתוכם ולא־כליתי את־בני־ישראל בקנאתי׃


The root of the word is “kana” (קנא). According to R’ Milgrom the verb “qana’a” in Arabic and Syriac means “become intensely red” and refers to anger in the face.

But I know I’ve read that word before…

When was that?

Oh yes, way back in Exodus.

Exodus 34:14

14Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.

כי לא תשתחוה לאל אחר כי יהוה קנא שמו אל קנא הוא׃

But now it is translated as jealous.  Weird?  I guess when jealous people also get “red in the face”.

When else is this word used?

The Ten Commandments!  That’s right folks.  It is in the second of the big Ten:

Exodus 20

4“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

לא־תשתחוה להם ולא תעבדם כי אנכי יהוה אלהיך אל קנא פקד עון אבת על־בנים על־שלשים ועל־רבעים לשנאי Verse 5

Wow! So God is a zealot?  Actually He even says His name is “Jealous” or “Zealous” depending on how you want it translated.  Some translate “kanah” as “Impassioned.”

Either way, what does all this mean?

God not only cares, but He is passionate about it.

He made humans who should also care, and be passionate about it.  Living with passion is one of the things that makes human life extraordinary and not like regular animal life.

Zeal is a word that means “great energy and enthusiasm”, so does the word passionate.

Don’t you want people to act passionately about their work?  Don’t you want your spouse to have passion for you?  In fact, if your spouse cannot have any jealousy for you, then I would argue they also lack passion for you… They just don’t care.

God is not indifferent.  God is not tolerant of whatever we do.  God cares, and how we behave makes a difference.

Jews are betrothed to God as a bride is to her groom.  We are bound to one another.  And the relationship is not only covenantal, it is also conditional.

God expects us to behave in certain ways.  As Jews we must be both holy and ethical.  Every human being must act ethical regardless of their creed.  Not doing so, acting unethically according to the universal morality given to us by God, brings His “great energy and enthusiasm”… with anger.   This is not said to anthropomorphize God.  Rather, just an attempt to understand an aspect of God in human terms.

When you read Pinchas and realize he acted with energy and enthusiasm to do what God wanted done with energy and enthusiasm then it may become more clear why Pinchas did what he did, and why God rewarded him the way He did (for a hint check out the second of the Ten Commandments again.)

As Milgrom writes:  “Only Phinehas obeyed God’s orders; only his act was congruent with God’s command.  And hence he (and not Moses) is entitled to “My pact of friendship”, (or “My Covenant of Peace”) b’riti shalom in verse 12.

לכן אמר הנני נתן לו את־בריתי שלום׃

IF people would act as zealous as they do for their sports teams, celebrities, musicians, political parties, environmentalism, anti-smoking, or whatever secular passions they have, as they could for just one of the Ten Commandments – “DO NOT STEAL”… we would have Heaven on Earth.

Shabbat Shalom!



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