This past Sunday, Rabbi Rachael, Rabbi Spike, and I spent the afternoon with the Temple Emanu-El softball team. Not only did the team win both games during their doubleheader, but we experienced a real display of what it means to be an athlete and what it means to be a Jew. Each member of the team played with passion for the game, respect for their teammates, and honor for their opponents. Whether consciously or not, our team was living their Jewish values on the field.
We don’t cease to be Jewish just because we leave our home, Temple Emanu-El, or the JCC. We live out our Judaism wherever we go, especially when we act on instinct and muscle memory like we do when we take to the field. When challenges or successes inevitably come our way, the Jewish response is to act with kavod (honor) for ourselves, our team, and for our opponents.
The idea of honoring our opponents—even our enemies—is at the center of this week’s Parasha, Pinchas. At the beginning of the Torah portion, we read the story of Pinchas, an Israelite zealot, who took vigilante action in God’s name against another Israelite. Pinchas was so upset that another Israelite, Zimri, would be in a relationship with a Midianite, Cozbi, that Pinchas killed both of the individuals. Then God, in a shocking turn of events, tells Moses to reward Pinchas for his vigilantism.
Generations of rabbis have debated this episode of the Torah. Few have justified God and Pinchas’ actions, whereas many have questioned the message this Torah portion is telling us. First, much of the Torah is a system of laws, and it seems counter-intuitive to reward someone for ignoring the law. Second, Zimri and Cozbi are not the first “interfaith” relationship in the Torah (see Moses and Tzipporah). The biblical meaning of this text is directly opposite of how we read and interpret this passage today. Whereas the biblical author wanted to praise Pinchas, we read this text today and are disgusted by the actions Pinchas took in the name of God.
Today, this text remains useful as an example of how NOT to act. Pinchas’ impulsive actions are directly counter to the praiseworthy patience and passion that we encourage in ourselves, our children, our teammates, and our leaders.
Our Temple Emanu-El softball team embodies the right kind of Jewish action. Ahead of the Maccabi Games this weekend, I know our athletes will not behave like Pinchas; rather our athletes will play with passion, devotion, and respect.