From Zealot to Peace Bringer: Simeon, Levi and Phinehas

In Parashat Vayechi Jacob gives his blessing to his sons. His words to Simon and Levi are harsh:

Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council; unto their assembly let my glory not be united; for in their anger they slew men, and in their self-will they houghed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

Jacob points out the terrible violence inflicted by Simeon and Levi after the rape of Dinah, and condemn their deadly brutality. According to Jacob’s view, violent behavior driven by zealot belief is dangerous, therefore it is said: “I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.”

Scattering Simeon and Levi among the other tribes might lead them towards more moderate behavior. In generations to come Simeon is assimilated in the tribe of Judah. The story of the tribe of Levi is somewhat more complicated. Levi literally scatters among the tribes, yet continues to take part in acts of zealotry and violence.

After the sin of the golden calf Moses, son of Levi, cleanses the camp of Israel with the help of his brethren from the tribe of Levi:

Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: ‘Whoso is on the LORD’S side, let him come unto me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: ‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men (Exodus 32, 26-28).

In the case of the Sin of the Baal of Peor, Moses says to the judges of Israel: “Slay ye everyone his men that have joined themselves unto the Baal of Peor.” Later we are told that Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, kills Zimri, the son of Salu, a prince of a fathers’ house among the Simeonites and a Midianite woman, Cozbi, the daughter of Zur. This murder, that was motivated by religious zealotry, stops the plague and earns Phinehas a special status: “I give unto him My covenant of peace”

Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace; and it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel.

Between Zealotry and Peace

Hillel says “be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1). One could interpret Hillel’s statement as criticism against Phinehas’ violence and zealotry. However, the interesting question is why was Phinehas blessed with a covenant of peace right after committing murder?

The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) in his commentary of the Torah, Ha’amek Davar (Delve into the matter), differentiates between being zealot for God’s sake, that is with pure intentions with no personal motivation, and being driven by personal zeal, that is driven by hatred and personal interest:

A man can be a zealot bearing the Fire of God, only if he has cleansed himself of any human jealousy. For he who bears the Fire of God must take care that this fire will not turn into a Foreign Fire.

Being human, even an individual acting out of the purest idealistic motivation, is likely to be tainted by personal interest, human anger and jealousy. Phinehas receives a blessing that has the quality of Tikkun (bringing harmony): that he may be able to replace zealotry with peace, that he may move away from fanaticism and violence and bring harmony and peace.

Feature Photo: The Triumph of Elijah Over the Prophets of Baal by Domenico Fetti (circa 1622)

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