A poor woman had two children, and all of them were starving. One morning, the woman came upon a perfectly round egg. The children squealed with delight, excited that they would finally eat.
The mother said, "Now children ... we musn't be hasty! If we wait, the egg will hatch and it will be a chicken. And we won't cook the chicken, because if we wait, the chicken will have more eggs, and then we'll have a bunch of chickens. And we can go to the market and sell the chickens for a cow. And then, we'll wait some more, and we'll trade the cow's milk for chickens and goats and hens ... and we'll have a whole farm and enough food to feed all of us so that we'll never go hungry again!
And in her excitement, wouldn't ya know it, the woman drops the egg ....
So it is with us - all of us have good intentions. Most of the time, we WANT to do the right thing. We want to work out, we want to eat healthier, we want to be nicer to that one person that gets on our nerves ... But as we all know, there is a gap between the loftiness of our intentions and our ability to bring those intentions to fruition.
This week's Torah portion teaches the same lesson.
The parsha of Pinchas starts with God saying to Pinchas, Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.
Earlier, we read that Pinchas snuck into the tent of a fellow Israelite, and his new Mideonite bride. Mideonites were not well respected ... Pinchas, upset that his clansman married a non-Jew, decides to take matters into his own hands. He kills the Israelite man and his wife.
Now, this is highly problematic. Pinchas kills two people, and for THIS God reflects that Pinchas turned back God's wrath from the Israelites?
The story also troubles me for its implicit harsh judgement of intermarried couples, many who make up the backbone of congregations across the country, including our own.
So why praise Pinchas to the point of having an entire Torah portion named after him?
I think it's because unlike the old lady in our story, Pinchas did not deliberate. He acted. and as God later tells him, he acted zealously.
There are many elements of Pinchas' action that are objectionable to one degree, or downright horrid to another. But, he teaches us a few very important lessons regarding Judaism.
1) It is a religion of action. We have 613 mitzvot, 613 laws. A VERY small majority of these commandments relate to how we should feel, or what we believe. The vast majority revolves around visible actions that we do with our body. As a matter of fact, I once learned that the reason that some Jews "shuckle" while davening, is to remind themselves that after prayer is over, they need to actualize the words of prayer. We do that with our bodies - through action.
2) You are enough. In Judaism, there are no theological intermediaries, such as in Catholicism. You can be your own teacher, your own rabbi. Now, that should be balanced with a healthy dose of intellectual rigor and community discourse, but as a Jew, YOU decide how to live Jewishly.
3) Judaism is intensely emotional and personal. Larry Hoffman, one of my favorite professors, said to us time and again, "Theology is autobiography." Judaism is filled with intellectual activity. We have the Torah, the Mishna, the Talmud, the commentaries, the Midrash .... There is always more to learn, another class to take, a book to read. But more to the point, it's not a religion to be learned, but to be lived. Pinchas' zealousness shows that Judaism is not just about the rote recitation of prayer, or the habitual practice of commandments. It is about meaning, spirituality, passion ... zealousness.
I do want our beliefs to be filled with joy, spirituality and warmth. But more importantly, I want our lives to be filled by the actions we take. Then, we will never be hungry again.