Rabbi Yaakov Haber
Rabbi Yaakov Haber

Zealotry: The Dangerous and the Necessary

Parshas Vayeishev is often read on Shabbos Chanuka. Many interconnections between this parsha and the holiday have been offered. Here, we suggest another.

"Vayom'ru ish el achiv hineih ba'al hachalomos halazeh ba. V'ata l'chu v'nahargeihu...." "And they said to one another, behold that master of dreams is coming. Now, come and let us kill him..." (37:19). According to Rashi (Mikeitz 42:24), quoting the Midrash, the speakers were Shimon and Levi. Previously, Shimon and Levi had used their quality of zealotry (kin'a) and rage to wipe out the city of Sh'chem during the rescue of their sister Dina from the hands of Sh'chem and Chamor. Now, they once again unsheathed this quality to plot the murder of their brother, Yoseif. Although the commentaries note that the plot to harm Yoseif was not based solely on jealousy over the favoritism shown to him by their father, but rather on the fact that the brothers viewed him as a threat to their spiritual survival (see Sforno and Malbim), nonetheless their actions were clearly objectionable and, according to various Midrashim, led to the bitterness of the Egyptian exile and even the cruel murders of the 'Asara Harugei Malchus, the Ten Righteous Martyrs, eulogized in kinnot on Tisha B'av and Yom Kippur.

Ya'akov Avinu curses this harsh anger and zealotry in his parting message to his children and decrees on Shimon and Levi that he will "scatter them in Israel" (VaYechi 49:5-7). Anger, zealotry, and willingness to kill are indeed dangerous traits that can cause irreversible harm to individuals and to nations. Ya'akov's curse of this quality is clearly understandable. But yet, we find this same anger, zealotry, and willingness to kill praised by Moshe Rabbeinu in his final blessings to the Tribes of Israel. "Ha'omeir l'aviv ul'imo lo r'isiv v'es banav lo hikir" -- the tribe of Levi is thus praised for their zealotry in killing all the primary perpetrators of the Cheit Haeigel, the Golden Calf, and are rewarded: "yoru mishpatecha l'Ya'akov" -- "they will teach Your statutes to Ya'akov" thus becoming the primary Torah teachers in Israel (VeZos HaBracha 33:9-10). Shimon, on the other hand, is totally omitted from Moshe's blessings. Indeed, Rashi (VaYechi 49:7) notes that even Ya'akov alludes to Shimon's and Levi's destiny to become Torah teachers throughout Israel. How can we explain Ya'akov's cursing of their anger, indicating his extreme disappointment in them and, on the other hand, his blessing for them to become Torah-teachers throughout Israel?! How can the same zealotry be cursed by Ya'akov and blessed by Moshe? Why does Moshe bless Levi but omit a blessing for Shimon? Furthermore, Moshe himself used these same qualities in killing the mitzri harming the Israelite, standing up to the sinners in Israel at the Cheit HaEigel, and courageously quashing the rebellion of Korach and his followers.

Middot, character traits, in and of themselves are neither totally good nor totally evil. Even the "good" quality of mercy, when misapplied, leads to cruelty. "Kol ham'racheim 'al ha'achzarim sofo l'hisachzeir 'al harachmanim" -- "one who is merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful." The goal of the 'adam hashaleim, the complete person, is to utilize all the middot in the proper setting and time. The danger of the "bad" middot is that even when one utilizes them for the correct reasons, once he internalizes them, he may easily misapply them in areas where they are reprehensible. The mishna in 'Avot (Chapter 5) highlights this point by, on the one hand, praising 'azus, boldness, or even audacity, by declaring: "hevei az kanameir", "be as bold as a leopard," but also stating that "'az panim l'geihinnom" -- "The brazen [are destined] for Purgatory." The commentaries note that although boldness can be utilized positively in the pursuit of knowledge and in ignoring the mockery of those who would deride Divine service, it can easily be misused to abuse and even destroy innocents. (Some note that it is for this reason that the mishna ends with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, a reference to the peaceful Messianic era, when all will pursue the service of G-d, and 'azut will not need to be utilized at all, thus eliminating any danger of its misapplication.)

Ya'akov, extremely alarmed about the qualities of anger and zealotry in his two sons, curses, or attempts to minimize, their effect. However, he does not wish these characteristics to be eliminated entirely. "I will scatter them in Israel." Let them not be concentrated, but, in small doses, they can be utilized properly, and the other tribes can learn from them how to utilize these traits positively. (Also see Parshat Vayishlach - The Principled Pursuit of Principle by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig)

The test for these two tribes is how they will use these qualities in the future. Levi utilizes them properly for the sake of G-d, first by heeding Moshe's call to take up the sword against the idol-worshipers and then by Pinchas' stopping the Divine anger at Bnei Yisrael over the grievous double sin of the worship of Ba'al P'or and concurrent immorality with the bnot mo'av umidyan by killing Zimri and Kazbi. For these actions, Sheivet Levi is awarded the right to be the attendants in the Mishkan and Pinchas is awarded the kehuna.

Shimon, on the other hand, uses zealotry once again for incorrect purposes. When approached by his tribe to do something about the plague befalling Israel, Zimri, the nasi of Shimon, grabs a Midianite woman and mocks Moshe Rabbeinu in public before sinning with her. This misguided zealotry leads to his death, and, according to Rashi (VeZot HaBracha 33:7), to Moshe's omitting the tribe of Shimon from the blessings and to their loss of an independent share in the Land of Israel.

In the events commemorated by Chanuka, once again the positive use of kinas Hashem, emerges. The rallying cry of the Chashmonaim, the descendants of Levi, was "Mi Lashem Eilai!", the same slogan uttered by Moshe leading to the gathering of the tribe of Levi to eradicate the sinners of the Golden Calf. The Chashmonaim's refusal to submit to religious persecution and willingness to battle against the formidable Greek war machine against apparently insurmountable forces serve as a source of encouragement throughout the ages to stand up against the enemies of Israel. Once again, the kin'a of Levi serves a crucial role preserving the Torah of Israel for all subsequent generations.

In our era, we see the dangers and havoc wreaked by misguided zealotry. On the other hand, once again we are being charged to battle against our enemies, both physical and spiritual in Israel and in the Diaspora. As we celebrate Chanuka, may Hashem grant us the ability to utilize the full gamut of middos, including the midda of kin'a, only for the correct purposes.

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