This week and last week we met Pinchus, a nephew to Moses and Aaron and a member of the Levitical guard for the Mishkan. When Zimri, one of the tribal chieftains from the tribe of Shimon attempts to bring idolatry into the sacred area with Cozbi, a Moabite priestess, Pinchus, in his religious zeal, does not arrest the couple and wait for judicial process, he kills them both on the spot. Moses and Aaron are not happy that justice was not consulted but we learn this week that God will reward Pinchus by making him and his family priests forever.
I don’t think that there is a Rabbi in the Talmud who is not unhappy with this result. Justice is Justice. We are commanded to pursue Justice at all times. Pinchus, in his zealotry took the law into his own hands. He should be punished but God instead rewards him by elevating him and his family from Levites to Cohanim. Only the intervention from God saved Pinchus from prosecution and punishment. I should add that it is a rather shrewd reward that God has for Pinchus. After all, one of the quickest ways to subvert a zealot is to make him part of the establishment. Now that he is a priest, he can’t kill anyone without bringing a severe impurity upon himself.
I think that the issue of zealotry is one that is most important today, more important than ever given our current situation. We have zealots on both the right and the left who are constantly screaming at each other about how wrong the other side is and how everyone should realize how correct their vision is. That it spills over into violence from time to time should not surprise anyone. To a zealot, the correct path is so clear that there is no reason for anyone to vary from that path. Those who don’t see that this is the one correct and most perfect way, well, they have no reason to go on living.
We often see this kind of zealotry when it comes to religion. We certainly know about Jewish Zealots who preach a strict form of Judaism and who live in closed communities where deviation is not permitted at all. Those who rebel are exiled from the community leaving family and friends behind. It was one such zealot who assassinated Prime Minister Rabin because Rabin advocated making peace with the Palestinians.
Christianity too has its zealots. They too live in small communities and they believe that our country is at war against Christmas and Christianity. They advocate that we should not teach about other faiths because they are wrong. It is these Christian Zealots who come out every day to picket abortion providers. They have shot abortion providers and bombed abortion clinics because they wish to save “unborn lives”.
And we can’t forget the Islamic zealots who have turned to war and terror to those who don’t share their fundamentalist vision of Islam. So many Muslims in the world live in peace and friendship with people of other faiths, but these zealots will have none of it. If Mohamed in the 9th century could kill infidels, well then, they declare that any non-Muslim is a target and they have no concern if they kill innocent men, women and children.
What these zealots don’t understand is that God has made us all different because there are many paths to God, to truth and to understanding. What works for one person may not mean very much to another. What is clear to someone is not clear to someone else. Their zealotry blinds these people to see the common humanity that we share. They are so focused on their own way that they no longer see any other way in which humanity can grow. Anyone who disagrees with a zealot, they are the enemy.
This is why making a zealot part of the establishment is so effective in undoing their zealotry. Once they have to deal with real people who are struggling with their choices in life, it is almost impossible not to understand the struggle and to realize that one path does not work for everyone. It is not zealotry that makes us strong, it is our diversity. Once we put aside our view of the world and make way for other world views, real solutions to problems and real cooperation become possible. I work closely with clergy from many faiths, but when I meet someone who believes that everyone should convert to his or her way of understanding God, I find that I really don’t have very much to say to them.
Having a single answer to a problem seems to make life easier but it really complicates our lives a lot. If only everyone would see things the way I see them is not a path to perfection. It is the path to tyranny. Change and diverse opinions may make our decisions harder, but they make our lives richer as well. When we struggle to find an answer, we get to really exercise our free will in a way that single answers can never give us. Peace will not come when we all agree on something. Peace will only come when we understand the motivations of others and allow for their opinions as well.
We are here to welcome our new Cantor, Sarah Bolts to our community. She has lived here just a little more than a week or so. It is important to share with her our information about Manchester. What is the best shortcut to shopping? Where do you go for a good cup of tea? Where can you find good Pizza? We may think we have the best answer to these questions but before we can answer them we need to know where Sarah and her family shop, what kind of tea does she drink and what kind of pizza she likes. If you like Chicago deep dish pizza and she and Michael want thin crust coal fired pizza, it is unlikely she will be following your advice.
There is much she needs to learn about our congregation as well. We have lots of participation by our members that we wish to keep. Everyone has a different favorite cake to eat at our Kiddush after the service. Everyone has an opinion about music. Many of us older members have memories of how things have been done here for a long time. We want our Cantor to see this community through our own eyes so she will understand what our congregation is all about.
As I prepared to meet with Cantor Bolts, I thought about all the years of experience that I have and I reflected on what I felt was important to teach her about serving the community. But I also understood that our Cantor has a lot to teach me as well. The books on her shelf contain lessons taught after I graduated and contain information that my books don’t have. She has access to music and liturgy that I don’t even know about. She has lived in a generation, one in which my own children live, that I often struggle to understand. Yes, I have much to teach her, but she has just as much to teach me. My way of doing things is not the only way to get something done. Her viewpoint can open my eyes to possibilities that could help our congregation grow stronger. Why, in my zealotry, should I be closed to what she has to offer?
I encourage everyone to not only share your secrets of our synagogue with Cantor Bolts, but only if you are prepared to learn from Cantor Bolts as well. She can only understand us if we take the time to understand her point of view. One that is not “automatically wrong” but one in which we can all learn to make improvements in our lives. Everyone has something to teach someone else. We have to remain open to different opinions, different ways of doing things and yes even listen to different kinds of music. It is how I grow, it is how Cantor Bolts will grow and it is how all of us will grow as we build a community and a congregation for generations yet to come.
Welcome Cantor Bolts, Welcome to our community. We hope to get to know you as you get to know us and together let us reach out to the future. May God always guides us with love and understanding as we say …
Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 15, 2017.