By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
This is the parashah of Pinchas the Zealous. The courageous young priest stood up against idolatry and immorality and, in the end, saved Israel from a devastating plague.
While Pinchas’s radical response made him a hero worthy of having a Torah section named after, we wouldn’t necessarily suggest to our children that they emulate his behavior. Those were extraordinary times. Today, violence dare not become our norm. So, Pinchas—hero though he may be—cannot become our role model. At least not when it comes to the details of what he did.
Nevertheless, Pinchas does give us something very important to consider. What is it that would arouse our righteous indignation? What, in Jewish life today, would get us emotionally worked up? What would it take to galvanize us into action in defense of that which we consider sacred and inviolate? Is there something that would incense us? Anything?
I am reminded of a famous saying attributed to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. He said, “A Jew is neither willing nor able to allow himself to become divorced from G‑d.” In other words, once a Jew becomes consciously aware that what he is contemplating doing will cause him to be alienated from G‑d and that which is holy, he simply will not—and cannot—do it. Even if he is not remotely “religious,” it is something that comes from his inner essence, his spiritual DNA. It is in his very being.
How many true stories we all know that validate this principle. One that springs to mind is of a Jewish actor during the Holocaust. In those days especially, the stage was not the place where one would find “nice Jewish boys,” at least not nice Jewish religious boys. When the Nazis invaded the town, they desecrated the synagogues and—painful as it is to write these words—they unraveled the Torah scrolls and rolled them out in the gutter. To add insult to injury, they ordered this fellow, the actor, to urinate on the Torah. He was not at all religious. He probably hadn’t looked into a Torah in many years. Yet he could not bring himself to commit such sacrilege. He refused. The savage beasts killed him on the spot. He gave his life al kiddush Hashem, sanctifying the name of G‑d, and he went down in history as a holy martyr.
For the Jewish actor, that was his bottom line. What is ours? Religiously, is it Shabbos, Yom Kippur, intermarriage? Marrying out on Yom Kippur with a pork chop reception? Morally, is it insider trading, fraud, Ponzi schemes, or murder? Nationally, is it the West Bank, Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv? Where do we draw the line?
Our politically correct rules of etiquette promote such unparalleled tolerance that people’s democratic right to do anything they may wish has become the defining principle of our generation. The Ten Commandments are obsolete. “Thou shalt not violate my democratic right” is the first and last commandment.
Of course, in any democratic country, people may choose their own lifestyles as they wish. But when there is absolutely nothing that arouses our passion, nothing that raises our blood pressure, nothing that sparks any kind of protest, then we have become an insipid, innocuous, characterless society.
The story of Pinchas and his brave stand for G‑d, Torah, and morality gives us cause to consider and an important point to ponder. You don’t have to be a zealot to have a bottom line. What is my bottom line? What would I get passionate about? Is there anything in Jewish life that inspires me, excites me, or incenses me enough to take a stand?
Please think about it.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.