Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 22, 2022 / 23 Tamuz 5782

Summary: This week, as we read the section of the Torah about Pinchas, I reflect on zealotry through both prose and poetry.

Reading Time: Three minutes

This week’s Torah portion confronts us with a disturbing moment. Pinchas, a zealot who killed two lovers in last week’s reading, receives God’s brit shalom, a covenant of peace. How can someone who committed murder in cold blood turn around and suddenly get rewarded for his violent behavior? My father possessed a very flat, dry wit, and I can hear him stating, “Life’s not fair, and it’s not fair that life’s not fair.”

There was a time not so long ago when people resisted zealotry of all sorts. If we go back and look at rabbinic sermons from twenty or thirty years ago, let alone Talmudic commentary from over a thousand years ago, we will discover such resistance to zealotry and the thinking that gives rise to it.

In those days, the center held and the margins of society had little purchase to disrupt life. Nowadays, we once again celebrate our zealots, accusing those who are dispassionate, or who seek compromise, or who are moderate by nature, of being guilty and responsible for the evils around us and of perpetuating systems of oppression.

There’s something in the human soul that loves zealots—so long as they are our zealots. Such clarity! Such heroics! Such warriors for the good fight! Constantly, we hear significant numbers of the political class claim that if their party were only more extreme, it would be more successful at the ballot box. Half measures simply won’t do in our era.

Twenty-two years ago, I composed a poem meant to highlight the absurdity of the zealot’s position. It referenced Jacob and Laban, Isaac and Ishmael, Israeli and Palestinian. This is the poem:

The Portion of Ishmael and Isaac

This is the river of blood
That flows from the mountain of hate

And this is the river of blood
Flooding the mikveh of hope

Here is the drum beat pulsing louder than Mind
And Ayin takes Ayin in this endless game Ein Sof.

My fields are parched
And nothing grows
And what is before me
My enemies built with my tools
And here is my sweat watering the sun.

For seven years I tilled in the fields of my master
And watched as my wages were plundered.
And the Jewel of my eye?
How many years more must I labor for her?

For years he planted hatred
And watched it grow at my expense
And held an empty palm demanding more.
Am I the thief he steals from?

Toivel in the living blood.
Once. Twice.
Toivel in the living blood
Until you come out clean.


Ayin takes ayin: a reference to “an eye for an eye.”
Ein Sof: infinity, that which has no end, or a name for the unknowable aspects of God.
Toivel: the Yiddish pronunciation for dipping, particularly in water or the mikveh.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. As you read this poem, can you determine which stanza is recited by which protagonist? Or can you read it from either protagonist’s perspective?
  2. What purpose does the image of dipping in living blood serve? What does the image communicate?
  3. How do you feel about zealotry? Are zealots acceptable if they agree with what you hold to be the proper course of action?

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