Friday, July 22, 2022 / 23 Tamuz 5782

Shalom Chaverim:

Though it probably is not your favorite thing to do, I nevertheless ask you to take a moment or two to try to recall something about Yom Kippur:

Several times throughout the services of Yom Kippur, we recite the vidui, the “confession”. You know the one, where we strike our hearts accompanied by a plaintive melody as we list all the bad things we did. Those sins for which we confess are listed aleph-ad-taf, from “A” through to “Z”. The Reform Movement’s machzor (High holiday prayerbook) calls this “an alphabet of woes.”

Now, keep in mind that each of us is not necessarily guilty of having personally committed all those ‘sins’. Nevertheless, we rise as one community to make the confession because we are all involved whether collectively as a community, as humans, and/or as members of a democratic society in which (as Heschel said) “not all are guilty but everyone is responsible.”

Indeed, just before we recite the long list of misdeeds we say: “Our God and God of our ancestors, may our prayers come before You, and do not turn away from our supplication, for we are not so insolent and stubborn as to declare before You, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, that we are righteous and have not sinned. For, indeed, we have sinned.”

English translations of the traditional Hebrew are often “interpretive”… and they have to be if for no other reason than an “A” to “Z” list involves 22 letters in Hebrew but 26 in English! The last on the list in English – the “Z” sin – intrigues me and gives me particular pause.

Being… “Zealous for bad causes.”

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, challenges us to consider our “zealousness”.

Pinchas is a zealot who drives a spear through the bellies of two idolators. The traditional haftarah to this week’s portion is about Elijah who declares himself “zealous for God” and puts 450 priests of Baal to the sword. [Alas, we read a different haftarah this year due to the approach of Tisha B’Av.]

It seems as if the Torah approves of Pinchas’ actions since he is granted the ‘divine covenant of peace’ and the ‘covenant of eternal priesthood’ as his reward for summarily executing a sinful couple without any evident legal process, even if he did it for the sake of his God and his people. On the other hand, the rabbis of the ancient Midrash and Talmud were clearly disturbed by the dangerous precedent that Pinchas’ zealotry might establish: taking the law into your own hands; the lack of due process that ultimately weakens the institutions that uphold law, justice, and the civic order; establishing precedent for the kind of violence-in-the-name-of-God that we all know in our own world is a desecration of God’s name rather its sanctification…

Similarly, Elijah’s zealousness is presented as a failure, and God dismisses Elijah from being a prophet. The rabbis suggest that Elijah is in fact an incarnation of Pinchas. Extreme religious zeal is thus chastised. Elijah (and Pinchas) are later rehabilitated by tradition, which presents them as having learned their lesson: Elijah returns throughout the generations after his forced retirement to do good, kind, merciful, and humble deeds. He is steadfast rather than zealous, loyal but not insurgent. Instead of demonstrations of political/religious violence and declarations of ideology, he does kind deeds to win people’s hearts.

Is “zealousness” itself is a bad thing?

Or is zealousness neutral, or even ambiguous? How can we ensure that our passion on the issues of the day serves good purposes? That our causes are exclusively “good causes”? That we are not so black-and-white blinded by our zealousness and enthusiasm and righteous indignation that we miss the grey nuances in which truth and justice and peace often reside?

How can we channel our zealousness into kindness, and mercy, and humility to win people’s hearts? And yet…how can we be at the ready to act decisively if the situation demands immediate and disruptive action? And to know the difference between the approaches and the needs of the hour?

We will strike our hearts and say “Zealous for bad causes” on this next Yom Kippur. Will that be a luxury? A guilt-ridden affirmation? Or will that be one of the sins we assume others around us are repenting for but not us, really?

Hopefully we can think this one through for ourselves before Yom Kippur…


Rabbi Michael