Adrian A. Durlester

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Random Musings Before Shabbat-Pinchas 5762

I Still Get Zealous

I have written in my musings before of the differing consequences of zealousness- Nadav and Avihu toasted for their zealousness; Pinchas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics.

Yes, we can easily exegete the stories of Pinchas and Nadav & Avihu and derive very different (and even similar) lessons and teachings from them. But I'm opting here for a more holistic approach.

Our holy Torah is rife with seeming contradictions, stories rife with examples of situational ethics, etc. What is the lesson we can derive from these two examples very different examples of zealousness yielding such different outcomes?

Is the Torah telling us that Gd is moody and impetuous at times? That sometimes when we do what we believe is what Gd wants Gd approves and at other times Gd does not, depending upon which side of the bed Gd woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a Gd whose mood can affect all Gd's creations. And I'm not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of Gd. (There's a book inside of me, that someday I'll write, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of "b'tzelem Elokim" in a somewhat reverse manner--that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that Gd possesses as well--and that Gd, too, is seeking a way to rid Gd's self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since Gd possesses these qualities, they aren't so negative after all? But I digress.)

Need we be troubled by a tempestuous Gd, be so insistent on consistency from our Deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of Gd preventing us from seeing a bigger picture?

I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk?

As always, as I ponder these question, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happening in my own world. A while back, I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 "soloists" kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few "zealots" would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, as well, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players--because it didn't seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in "luck"-a game of chance with an edible reward--chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.

Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds--as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn't really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part.

So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn't hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative.

However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinchas' zeal was obviously appreciated by Gd.

So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn't appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves--but I don't believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to Gd could have been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community's welfare and not just their own. We'll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinchas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinchas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That's really going out on a limb I'm not sure I want to crawl onto.

It's not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinchas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.

I'm no closer now than when I started to figuring out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, yet that just gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I've engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.

As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some previous Musings on this parasha

Pinchas 5760-It Just Is!

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