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Repudiating Zealotry

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Because the story of Bilaam is so compelling, that is the section of this week’s Torah portion that we usually focus on, but actually the portion ends with a second story, one which is much darker.

After Bilaam’s blessing, the children of Israel become engaged with the Moabites and join them in their pagan worship. The Biblical text blames the Moabite women who we are told lured the Israelites into the practice of idolatry.  Moses attempts to lead an attack against the Moabite, but even as he is gearing up for battle, an Israelite man flagrantly leads a Midianite women into his tent. Phinehas a nephew of Moses, goes after him with his sword, killing them both.  Phinehas’ zealotry seems to be rewarded, as it ends the plague which had killed 24,000 and wins God’s promise of enduring friendship.

Most frequently rabbis wait until the conclusion of this story in next week’s Torah portion, a portion which is named for Phinchas, to speak about this text. This allows us to preach on how, even as Phinehas is honored in various ways, it is  Joshua not Phinehas who is designated in this very portion as Moses’ successor.

This year that standard repudiation of zealotry doesn’t seem enough to me.  Though the murder of the Palestinian young man Muhammed Abu Khdeir remains still to some extent unsolved, its repudiation by Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu speaks to the supposition that this was a revenge killing by the extremist Jewish price tag group or its imitators. It also expressed an acknowledgement that Israeli society has not dealt seriously with this rogue element and has allowed calls for violence against Arabs to proliferate.

Netanyahu stated at the US Ambassador to Israel’s home Thursday night at a July 4th celebration: “I unequivocally condemn the murder of a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem two days ago…We don’t know yet the motives or identities of the perpetrators, but we will. We will bring to justice the criminals responsible for this despicable crime whoever they may be.”

There have also been calls in the second half of this week for the head of the B’nai Akivah youth movement, the mainstream Orthodox youth to step down because of his words of incitement.

Following the discovery of the three bodies of the missing young Israelis, the secretary General of the World Bnei Akiva organization, Rabbi Noam Perel, formerly a head of a high-school yeshiva, a leading educator in the mainstream of religious Zionism, wrote Tuesday on his Facebook, and to all the shlichim emissaries of Bnei Akiva worldwide, words that encouraged violence and the taking of vengence. “By the blood of our enemy this disgrace will be absolved, not by our tears,” Perel wrote. The call for his resignation began among the Orthodox outside of Israel but it has spread to Israel as well.

The great worry of Moses, that when the Israelites come into the land of Canaan, they will be influenced by the resident peoples, is not just a concern about idolatry. It is a generalized concern that the Israelites will adopt the ways of their neighbors- and that remains a concern today. How ironic that it is the “most Torah true” voices who are encouraging the Jewish community in Israel to remake itself in the image of its neighbors, to adopt their standards and practices, to reduce ourselves from a light unto the nations, into a people of vengeance and vendettas, to say that being not as bad as Hamas is good enough.

The renunciation of Phiinechas and his zealotry is not just the view of a modern Reform rabbi- it is codified in the Talmud. In Tractate Sanhedrin 82a the great rabbis of the Talmudic period teaching in Israel and in Babylonia explicitly state that anyone consulting them about how to act, even in a similar situation, would not be instructed to emulate Phinhas’s example.  Further they go on to connect Moses’ impassioned act in slaying the taskmaster in Egypt, as act viewed with much sympathy,  as related to his punishment in not being allowed to enter the Promised Land, for it was taking the law into his own hands.

In Bilaam’s blessing there is a verse that has puzzled commentators. Is it really a blessing? Am Levadav Yishkon- a people who dwells alone (Numbers 23:9). About this verse traditional commentators have stressed the ways in which the people of Israel have been distinguished from other peoples in their religious and moral laws and practices. It is these special practices, this strong commitment to morality that has is core to our divine mission: “ I shall be made holy through you in the eyes of the Gentiles ( Ezekial 20:41). It is seeing the Israelites practicing justice and mercy that will bring credit to God, the source of their laws. This is Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of God’s name; anything less is Chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.

We pray that the killer of Muhammed Abu Khdeir will be apprehended and prosecuted under Israeli law. Anything less would be a desecration of God’s name. Only with that crime solved will we be able to return to the task which has been interrupted, that of mourning for Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel. 

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