This week’s parsha concludes with the historic act of Pinchas killing Zimri for his public illicit behavior. Pinchas is known as a kanai – a zealot – as the Torah testifies he indeed was.
The concept of zealousness is not clear cut. There are in fact different halachos that a true and honest zealot may follow in certain situations. For example, in the exact scenario that Pinchas took action, where a Jewish male cohabited with a non-Jewish female in the presence of 10 or more Jews, only a zealot – one who seeks to avenge the honor of Hashem – may take action against him and kill him. If one is not a true and sincere zealot acting to avenge Hashem’s honor he may not take action against the sinner.
There are two other examples given in the Mishna in Sanhedrin (81b) where a zealot may avenge the honor of Hashem: one who steals a service vessel used in the Beis Hamikdash, and one who curses Hashem using an avoda zara. But what about other cases? What about other scenarios that offend and disgrace the honor of Hashem? How do we know when to act and how to act?
Indeed, the Netziv in his hakdama to Bereishis writes that the destruction of the second Beis Hamikdash was caused by people acting overzealously toward one another. In order to react to another’s behavior one must have a rebbe to teach and guide him how to properly conduct himself.
The sefer Meged Givos Olam (Vol. I, page 77) quotes the following two incidents that underscore this message: The maskilim (followers of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, who led many Jews away from religion) built a theater in or adjacent to the town of Radin, where the Chafetz Chaim’s yeshiva was. The theater would be a place of frivolity and would be a disgrace to the Torah.
It so happened that the owner of the theater’s daughter became ill with a high fever and it came to a point that the doctors had given up all hope of her recovery. Out of desperation the owner came to the Chafetz Chaim crying and pleaded, “Rebbeh save my daughter.” The Chafetz Chaim answered him, “If you want your daughter to live, destroy the theater and I guarantee your daughter will have a complete refuah.”
The owner did not waste any time, took two sledge hammers and began destroying the theater with his own hands. When word got out, many of the maskilim came to see why he was destroying the theater and tried to stop him. The owner answered them with fury, “Whoever tries to stop me I will kill them with these two hammers.” They realized that his daughter’s life stood in front of him and they did not protest, and the theater was destroyed.
On another occasion, the maskilim built a library filled with books of heresy, which also posed a great threat to Orthodox Jews. There were a group of bachurim who decided to act as kanaim and burnt the library, along with all the books in it, to the ground. The maskilim were not perturbed by this; rather they used it to launch a very successful fundraising campaign and raised enough money to build an even nicer library with even more detrimental books.
We see from here that to correctly respond to the wrongful acts of other we need direction from our rebbeyim. The Gemara notes that before Pinchas took action against Zimri he said to Moshe Rabbeinu, “Didn’t Rebbe teach us that a zealot may avenge the honor of Hashem in this situation?” Moshe responded in the affirmative and instructed Pinchas to carry out the judgment. However sometimes the best response is not to respond at all.
It once happened that the Minister of Religion publicly embarrassed and denigrated the Brisker Rav. There were many who arranged demonstrations to defend the honor of the Brisker Rav and the Torah. When the Brisker Rav got wind of these demonstrations, he responded, “For every dog that barks must we make a hafganah – demonstration?”
May we learn the correct way to deal with what we perceive as other’s misdoings, and merit the rebuilding of the third Beis Hamikdash – amen.