Zealots. Zeal. Zealotry. Zealousness. A term which is complicated and an ideal which is controversial in our tradition. It was the Zealots who, close to 2100 years ago, destroyed the granaries in Jerusalem, causing our ancestors to have to fight the Romans and ultimately lose the city to them. And it was modern zealots who, just a couple of weeks ago in that very same city, desecrated prayer books, siddurim, belonging to non-Orthodox Jews as they celebrated Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at the Kotel, a terrible chilul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name.
Our tradition is not comfortable with zeal. In fact, when it comes to Pinchas, the Talmud describes how his circumstances were out of the ordinary, implying that it was only because of his unique situation that God blessed what he had done (Sanhedrin 82b). While this is one model for religious life, another is found later in our parsha.
The fifth aliyah, which we read every Rosh Chodesh, describes the Korban Tamid. “You shall bring one lamb in the morning and one in the afternoon” (Num. 28:4). Some rabbis have suggested that this is the most important verse in the entire Torah. Forget Shema. Forget the Ten Commandments. This is it. One lamb in the morning, one in the afternoon.
But why? Why is this so important?
The Maharal of Prague, who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, describes beautifully that this idea speaks to the sense that we are to be consistent and constant in our relationship with God. Move away from the notion of zeal and from running after some incredible, extraordinary, once in a lifetime experience. Instead, focus on how you act every single day. “One lamb in the morning and one in the afternoon.” This becomes the model for when we pray (Berakhot 26b), and also reminds us of the importance of learning Torah and performing acts of gemilut hasadim, kindness, day in and day out.
As we consider our parsha and its protagonist, we recognize that additional models of religious experience exist within our tradition. As as we remember and mourn the Temple’s destruction in these days leading up to Tisha B’av, my berakha for us is that we be zealous about our everyday actions and about the opportunities afforded to us to learn, to daven, to act kindly towards others, as we better ourselves, our families, our communities, and the entire world.
Let us end with that beautiful quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.”