Rabbi David Walk
In 1965 The Man of La Mancha opened on Broadway, and after 2382 performances plus a 1972 film version Don Quixote de la Mancha was once again a character of interest to our world. But how should we view this quixotic personality? Was he a hero, a charlatan or a fool? Fans of the 1967 Red Sox (like me) rallied around the play's dramatic hymn, The Impossible Dream as the team went from ninth place to the pennant. For me Quixote was a hero, because, as the song says, he was willing to march into Hell for a heavenly cause (beating the Yankees?). However, is my romantic vision of Cervantes' protagonist and alter ego a legitimate Torah position? His crusade for chivalry and moral values seems admirable, but his vigilantism is problematic. Are we really permitted to behave badly or illegally if our purpose is righteous? My initial reaction is to give a limited and reluctant affirmative. This is indeed the best week to have this discussion, because Judaism's favorite vigilante, Pinchas, is the featured character in our weekly Torah reading.
In modern day Israel Pinchas is simultaneously a figure of veneration and trepidation. The ultra nationalist camp looks to him as combination role model and patron saint. However, the more liberal and secular segments of the population view him with fear and, almost, loathing because of the concern that he could inspire would be Jewish Jihadists. So, it's not surprising that some of the greatest thinkers in the modern Jewish world have weighed in on this flash point topic. The jumping off point for these thinkers is the Talmud in Sanhedrin which tries to limit severely the circumstances when the Pinchas Principle can be applied. The legal terminology for this phenomenon is kanaim poga'im bo (the zealous may strike him down).
The first chief rabbi of Ashkenazic Jewry, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook not surprisingly took up this issue and eloquently wrote: The act of zealotry illustrates a halakhah which we are not instructed to perform. How can such an act take place except with pristine pure religious intention, devoid of any personal bias? There must not be the slightest element of murder involved, for such an act is done not according to the decision of a court that hears capital cases, not according to the testimony of witnesses, only when caught in the act, and is directed entirely at eradicating evil in the name of Heaven. Only under such circumstances is this forbidden act, which normally causes impurity, transformed into an act which is permissible, to an act which sanctifies. Thus states Rav Kook to limit if not eliminate these acts.
More recently, the great Halachik authority HaRav Shaul Yiraeli of Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav declared: This rule of halakhah serves but to say that those elect few who carry zealousness for the Lord in their hearts and who sense the full enormity of abhorrence in this act … those people are not obliged to struggle emotionally to overcome their feelings, rather they are permitted to give free reign to their feelings and lay hands on the person who has committed the abhorrent act. Rav Yisraeli is teaching that really the perpetrator doesn't necessarily deserve to die, but God and the Torah have provided an outlet for that miniscule number of extremely sensitive spiritual souls who can't bear to see the Torah publicly desecrated. It's an outlet and excuse for the observer of the heinous deed rather than a fitting punishment for the crime and criminal. It's akin to a defense of temporary insanity.
But we'd like to look at this halacha as a philosophic principle rather than a unique aberration. I believe that the context of our parsha helps to put this principle into a proper perspective. Unique among the Five Books of Moses the Book of Numbers continuously switches back and forth between narrative and legal material. I believe that the Sages divided the readings in such a way as to connect the laws with stories which complement each other. In our parsha the story of Pinchas and God's blessing to him is connected to the law of girls inheriting from their father when there is no son. The daughters of Zelphchad declare to Moshe: Our father died in the desert, but he was not in the assembly that banded together against the Lord in Korah's assembly, but he died for his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should our father's name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father's brothers (Numbers 27:3-4). Moshe is impressed by this presentation, and doesn't view it as whining or attacking the law. Shalom Colin on the Bar Ilan website writes: We can learn several principles regarding the proper way to speak in such circumstances: not to attack, not to criticize, to refer to "myself" in "I" sentences, explaining the reason for one's feelings, clarifying needs and expectations, ascertaining attention, not reading other's thoughts, and not exaggerating.
In the book of Numbers Moshe is often fed up with the complaints of the Jews. But in two instances he seriously entertains the complaint and brings the petition before God. One is here and the other is the Jews who are hurt because their impure state didn't allow them to bring the Paschal lamb (Chapter nine, 6-10). Those two complaints were perceived by Moshe as sincere. The intent of both sets of petitioners was seen as acting l'shem shamayam, for the sake of heaven.
In the final analysis, what do we learn from the Pinchas Incident? We don't learn that we can take the law into our own hands. We do learn that God gives credit for good intentions, even when the act is repugnant. The gift to Pinchas is God's covenant of peace and friendship, because Pinchas acts for the benefit of God and without any personal agenda. That's uncommon. And we learn this principle from the daughters of Zelophchad. It seems that the law and even God bend and give space to those whose hearts are pure. Sort of like Don Quixote.
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