Rabbi Michael Barclay
Pinchas, Passion, and a Hope for the Future
This week’s Torah reading of Pinchas (Num. 25:10-30:1) begins with a teaching about a value that is not only a requirement for Jewish spiritual awareness, but is one of the foundation stones of living a full life:
Passion is truly a “Jewish value”, as we see in this reading. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, along with all his descendants are forever rewarded by God with being the Cohanim…the priests of Israel. They are given this blessing because of Pinchas’ passionate defense of God’s teachings. “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” Num.25:11).
This is continued throughout Jewish history. The passion of King David for God is exemplified not only through the Psalms, but clearly seen as he danced his way into Jerusalem, “dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6:14). From the exuberance of the Baal Shem Tov to the exciting music and stories of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach to the laughter and love of Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz z”l, we find Hasidic Judaism filled with passion for God and life. For thousands of years, Judaism has traditionally been a path of praising God and caring for each other with all of our energy. Judaism is about action even more than faith, and is a pathway of ethical behavior based on the passionate union with God.
Whether it’s Jews discussing (or arguing) about politics, theology, business, or anything else; we do it passionately. Our actions of philanthropy, political activism, community support, and more are constantly done with all of our energy and spirit. Traditionally, we are not “passive” supporters of something: we are passionate leaders.
Sadly, much of this has changed in American Judaism over the last few decades. As many American Jews have assimilated and let go of the deeper Jewish connections that their parents and grandparents had formed, all too many American Jews have also let go of the passionate joy of our faith tradition in favor of secular practices. Too often are we seeing American Jews go to temple only twice a year “out of obligation”; disconnecting from Jewish communities; and considering themselves secular or cultural Jews who go to the High Holidays and a Passover Seder, but don’t have any connection to the power, magnificence, and joy of Judaism.
And then these same secularized Jews wonder why their children have no desire to experience the powerful meaning of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah ritual, or choose to leave Judaism entirely as adults.
This is the profound sadness that permeates much of the 21st century American Jewish world: a lack of connection to our traditions, faith, and communities. But I lay the blame for this entirely at the feet of one group: the Rabbis who have lost their own passion and as a result are not conveying the joy of Judaism.
In Psalm 100, King David says, “Ivdu et HaShem b’simcha”, which can be translated as “The work of God is in joy”. Rebbe Nachman taught that we are commanded to be happy. Maybe if non-Orthodox Rabbis remembered this (the lack of joy and passion is much more prevalent in the Conservative and Reform clergy), then more American Jews would be inclined to return to the joy of our tradition. When Rabbis return as leaders to the values of passionate Judaism, pride in Israel, and joyous love of God, then Judaism will undoubtedly become healthier, more vibrant, and more meaningful.
Every Jew (especially clergy) needs to return to this joyous practice of Judaism in order for our people and tradition to survive, thrive, and be strong, especially in these times of increased anti-Semitism. We all need to remember the example of Pinchas’ passion if we are to hope that Judaism will be meaningful for our children; and that future generations will continue to have a love of God, a commitment to Israel, and be connected in Jewish communities.
This is why our synagogue has the word “simcha” (joy) in its name: we are committed as a community to always bringing passion and joy to the teachings, practices, and rituals of Judaism. It is why we spend the summer having outdoor services at a park where everyone can picnic, rejoice, and enjoy the beauty of the outdoors as we daven the Friday night Shabbat service. Many other synagogues have a similar summer schedule, and it deeply adds to the joy of the Sabbath service.
Without the inclusion of more joy into Judaism, the lack of passion that is so prevalent may seem to predict an even further decline in Jewish attachment and participation. But there is hope that a resurgence of this Jewish joy will revitalize the American Jewish world. Not only as more Rabbis realize that it is important, but through the revitalization of Jewish pride that is happening in some young Jewish communities.
Last year, I officiated a destination wedding in Cabo San Lucas of a beautiful Persian couple, where I was infused with hope for the future. Despite the fact that the groom had recently been physically assaulted for being a Jew (he was one of the young men beaten up at Sushi Fumi in May of 2021 by thugs dressed as Palestinians), the wedding couple, their family and friends all are proud Jews who celebrate Judaism and Israel. There was a pool party the day before the wedding, and what I saw brought tears of joy to both my wife and I. These young, proud Jews had brought down an Israeli flag to party with at the pool; and it was exquisitely beautiful to watch them dancing with the flag as they celebrated life and Judaism. It gave me more hope for our future than I can express, and showed me that our Jewish future can be strong and passionate as, like King David, they joyously danced with the symbol of our nation.
The Jewish future is up to all of us. Do we choose to keep going down a path that has no passion or joy and is bereft of spirituality? Or do we, like these young Persian Jews, King David, and all of our great Rabbis choose to emulate the passion of Pinchas and dedicate ourselves to the deep meaning and joy of Judaism?
May we all choose passion over apathy, and find the deeper meaning of Judaism in the joy that is inherent in our beautiful tradition.
Kavannah: For this one week, choose to be a passionate and joyous person. Focus on eliminating apathy entirely from your life this week. Do everything at 100%, and embrace the fullness of life and the blessings of the gifts that we all receive from God.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
July 21th, 2022
22nd of Tamuz, 5782