Five years ago, my musing for this parasha was entitled "I Still Get Zealous", the title being a pun on the Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn song "I Still Get Jealous" from "High Button Shoes" (though oddly, it was Louis Armstrong’s version that catapulted the song to fame.) I’m spinning this new musing off of that earlier musing, using some of its thoughts, but from a rather different vantage point.
In an odd coincidence of time, while I’m still zealous, today happens to have been my last day as Director of Education and Congregational Life for Bethesda Jewish Congregation (BJC.) It was not easy to choose to leave my congregational family of five years so that I might move with the family unit of which I have now become part to Amherst, MA. I’m sure most of you know what it’s like to leave somewhere for the last time. Yet nothing tells me more about my own habitual zealousness than the way I approached my last few weeks, days, hours and minutes at BJC. Last Friday, I led my last service for BJC, and I was as inspired and uplifted as always. This past Wednesday, I led Torah study for the last time, and was as engaged and enlightened as always. also on Wednesday, I directed the BJC choir in rehearsing for the Yamim Noraim (High Holy Days) for the last time, and was passionate and driven as always. I think that I can do no less.
Yes, the years have not only aged me but taught me. I have learned to reign in my zealousness and over-dedication. Though I must admit that during these past 7 years of bachelorhood I easily slipped back into my old habits of perhaps giving more of myself, my time, and my talents as I should. Now, once again part of a family unit with a child of 8 in it, I can’t give as much to other things no matter how driven or zealous I am, for my family requires and deserves more zealousness, passion, and patience than anything else. I’m sure that somewhere in there is a balance point, and I’ll find my way to it in time, but my family will also come first – something that, I am ashamed to admit, I cannot claim was always true in my previous relationships-though I’d like to think I made a valiant effort, no matter how much I succeeded or failed.
There are consequences of zealousness, but we cannot always be sure of what they will be – reward, punishment, et al. Nadav and Avihu were turned into crispy critters for their zealousness, yet Pinkhas rewarded for his. I wonder sometimes if this is a proof text for the idea that our Torah embraces and teaches about situational ethics.On the other hand, it could just be illustrative of an impetuous and sometimes overly zealous G"d.
I think I understand now why so many have this deep seated need for G"d to be unchanging, ever the same. That’s much easier to deal with than a G"d whose reactions and attitudes seem to vary from situation to situation (witness the different reactions to the zealousness of Pinkhas vs the zealousness of Nadav and Avihu.) and to put an even more radical spin on it, consider that all Nadav and Avihu did was offer a little bit of extra, alien fire, that they hadn’t been asked to offer – and for their troubles, G"d toasted them. Yet when Pinkhas murders in cold blood the fornicators Zimri and Cozbi, he gets rewarded with a "brit Shalom" a covenant with G"d for him and his descendants. (Yes, yes, we’ve all heard the apologetic explanations – G"d brought Pinkhas and his descendants into this special relationship so G"d could "keep an eye on these crazy zealots" – and G"d was actually rewarding Nadav and Avihu by bringing them into the ultimate special relationship with G"d. They were made holy by being sacrificed. Never mind the subtle christological subtext here.)
Yet, I reject the apologetics. What we have here is an inconsistent G"d who reacts differently in different situations. Voila-situational ethics. I don’t particularly agree with G"d’s choices here – that killing two human beings in order to assuage G"d’s anger is ultimately more forgivable than offering up a little extra alien fire. Then again, how often do G"d and I agree?
It gets trickier, because we strive to base our systems of ethics upon what we believe about that which G"d approves and disapproves. Yet it appears that sometimes, when we do what we believe is what G"d wants, G"d approves, and at other times G"d gives a thumbs down. On what basis? Depending upon which side of the bed G"d woke up on? On the surface, that appears to be a rather troubling vision-a G"d whose mood can affect all G"d’s creations. And I’m not buying into that one at all. It requires a bit too much of an anthropomorphizing of G"d. (There’s a book inside of me, that I am finally going to start writing now that life is giving me some breathing room to do so, based on the premise that one ought to look at the premise of "b’tzelem Elokim" in a somewhat reverse manner–that perhaps the very traits we find in ourselves that trouble us are traits that G"d possesses as well–and that G"d, too, is seeking a way to rid G"d’s self of these potentially negative energies. Or perhaps, since G"d possesses these qualities, they aren’t so negative after all? But I digress.)
Need we be troubled by a tempestuous G"d, be so insistent on consistency from our deity? And is it inconsistency, or is our narrow view of G"d preventing us from seeing a bigger picture?(Still, I won’t go as far as accepting that old "ineffable G"d canard.)
I do know that sometimes zealousness brings reward and other times retribution. Do we, therefore, avoid being zealous and avoid the risk? That would probably be the rabbinic approach-building a fence around it lest we inadvertently err.
As always, as I ponder these questions, and seek answers to them, I am reminded of happenings in my own world. I wrote in my 2002 version of this musing about a time I participated in a little team building exercise. It was tough going the whole time, as 3 or 4 "soloists" kept thwarting the attempts to build cohesive team action from the entire group. In an ideal world, the actions of these few "zealots" would have resulted in learning by their example the futility of failing to play with the whole team. And on occasion that did happen. Sometimes, though, through brutish and stubborn effort, the individualists succeeded. And I found that extremely frustrating. So much so that I and the other facilitators and participants actually endeavored to make it ever so much tougher for the non-team players–because it didn’t seem fair for them to succeed. Yet, as I thought about that, I thought about an activity I had observed earlier in another setting. It was a student experiment in "luck"-a game of chance with an edible reward–chocolate, of course. The exercise was structured in such a fashion that those who received some chocolate and how long they had to try and eat it all was truly random.
Some people were luckier than others-and I and the other adult observers in the room began to consider ways to help even the odds–as it seemed some students seemed particularly unhappy to not be getting any chocolate. Yet, in the end interference wasn’t really necessary. Things evened out. For the most part. So the zealous impulses I and other had were not acted upon and the result was fair. Almost. Because there was one kid whose luck didn’t hold-so we did have to finagle things a bit at the very end. And this kid was accepting and appreciative. However, there have been other times I have, or have seen others work to help give a student or a camper an advantage, and what we got for it in return was not appreciation but resentment. So was our zeal misdirected? Or just unappreciated? Is that what happened to Nadav and Avihu? Pinkhas’ zeal was obviously appreciated by G"d.
So when and where is zeal appropriate, and when is it dangerous? It doesn’t appear we get a clear answer from the Torah at all. It would be easy to assume that Nadav and Avihu were acting on behalf of only themselves–but I don’t believe the text clearly supports that assumption. They may have been inebriated, but their choice to offer yet one more sacrifice to G"d could have easily been motivated by their zeal for insuring the community’s welfare and not just their own. We’ll never know. It does seem a bit more apparent that Pinkhas acted with zeal on behalf of the community. His zeal drove him to kill two of G"ds creations – one a member of the tribe, another,the supposedly scheming daughter of a Midianite muckety-muck trying to lure the Israelite men into worship their gods. From the end results, perhaps we could conclude that Pinkhas was rewarded for that, and also conclude that, since Nadav and Avihu were not rewarded, that their zeal was selfish. That’s really going out on a limb I’m not sure I want to crawl onto. It’s also a very teleological approach to exegeting a lesson from the text.
It’s not surprising that so many people I know are somewhat zealous (particularly about their Judaism, and also about how they think other Jews should live.) I am one of those zealots. Like Nadav and Avihu, I have been stung (though perhaps with less drastic consequences) by allowing my unmitigated zeal to get the better of me. Like Pinkhas, I have also had the occasional reward for being zealous.
One would have thought that, after all these years, the level of my zeal would have decreased somewhat. Look-it even happened to Moshe, so why not me? That Moshe would so easily go to his grave, shucking and jiving and not openly complaining (too much) about his not getting to enter the promised land. That he even struck the rock in the first place. All signs of flagging zeal (or perhaps just old age.) Yet even today, on my last day, during my last hours, even my last few minutes, I worked to complete my tasks and prepare the way for my successor with passion and zeal. I did it not for any reward, for, particularly in this case, there would be none to be had-the tributes were long over and now came the silent slow walk out of the stadium after all the fans had left. Yet there is perceptible reward – and that is how I feel about myself, my professionalism, my passion, my dedication. Tonight I don’t need the strokes of others to make me feel good. I’m flying high on the reward of my own good feelings.
I’m perhaps a little bit closer now than when I started in trying to figure out when to be zealous and when to not act with zeal, but I haven’t figured it all out just yet. Great-that gives me something to ponder this Shabbat. I hope I’ve engaged you enough to get you pondering that question this Shabbat as well.
As always, a sweet Shabbat to you and yours.
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester (portions ©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester)