Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Pinhas Numbers 25:10-30:1
Efrat, Israel -Pinhas is generally considered a great hero of Israel: the Kohen-Priest who successfully arrested a plague from destroying the Israelites, the activist who stood up against public transgression even when Moses seemed paralyzed into passivity, the moralist whom our Sages identify with Elijah the Prophet, herald of redemption. But what was the precise nature of the sin against which he acted? The Biblical account appears to be very straightforward; after all, Pinhas receives his reward from G-d, the Divine covenant of peace and eternal “Kehunahood” for his descendants who will follow him, after he “speared” the private parts of two public fornicators, Zimri the prince of the tribe of Shimon and Kozbi the Midianite aristocrat. Apparently, he took a rather decisive public position against a brazen act of free sex between Israelite and Midianite.
However, immediately following the Divinely presented gifts to Pinhas and the revelation of the identity of the two sinners, the Bible commands:
“Do battle against the Midianites and smite them, they are your enemies because of the plot which they plotted against you concerning the matter of Pe’or and the matter of Kozbi the daughter of the Prince of Midian their sister who was struck down on the day of the plague because of the matter of Pe'or” (Numbers 25:16-18).
Why was Kozbi killed? Was it because of her immoral sexual seduction of an Israelite or because she and her Midianite clan worshipped the idol Pe'or? Rashi (ad loc) is aware of the textual problem, and suggest that the end-goal of the Midianites, and the reason for which they sent their daughters to tempt the Israeli men, was to get the Israelites to worship Pe'or. But I believe that there is an additional lesson to be learned here about the very nature of idolatry itself, an idolatry which is as contemporary and relevant as this morning’s newspaper.
A careful reading of the Biblical account of Pinhas’ act clearly emphasizes a seeming confusion concerning the nature of the transgression, or a fusion of two transgressions which are intermingled. In last week’s Torah reading, the introduction to the story of public cohabitation begins,
“And the Israelites dwelt in Shittim, and the nation began to whore after the daughters of Moab. And it happened that the nation served their idols… and Israel became joined to Baal Pe'or, the anger of G-d waned hot against Israel (Numbers 25:1-3).
Again, what was the sin? Was it whoring, or the idolatry of Pe'or?
And finally, this same seeming confusion appears in our rabbinic commentaries. Balaam is identified as “ben Be’or” (Number 22:5) which Targum Yonatan ben Uziel immediately identifies as Pe’or, son of the idol Pe’or, and when the narrative continues to describe how “Balak took Balaam to the top of Mount Pe’or” (Numbers 23:28), Rashi comments, “Balak was a great magician, and he saw that the Israelites would eventually be punished because of Pe’or.” However, when the Talmud attempts to describe the evil counsel which Balaam offered the nations who wished to vanquish Israel, the picture presented is one of sexual seduction by the young, nubile gentile women and not idol worship (B.T. Sanhedrin 106a).
And so we must ask the fundamental question: Was the more heinous crime the sexual immorality, or was it the worship of Pe’or?
I believe the answer becomes clear when we attempt to understand the nature of Pe’or worship. The Mishnah in tractate Sanhedrin teaches that Pe’or was worshipped by defecating in front of him - hardly the kind of appetizing religious cult which would attract masses of adherents. But apparently Pe’or was very popular, at least with Midian and Moab. And I would suggest that Pe’or remains popular until this very day. What was the Pe’or god saying to its adherents? Defecation is a normal human function, and the individual who relieves himself feels relieved! Do whatever is natural to do, do whatever makes you feel good. “Let it all hang out;” if this is your nature, if the act is natural, then it becomes correct to express it.
Is this not merely a re-statement - or cultural precursor - of much of contemporary, post-modern thought, of John Brown’s Eros and Civilization and Herbert Marcuse’s attitude towards life?! Discipline has become the “Hobgoblin of little minds,” and self-expression takes precedence over duty to family, to country and to ideal. It is a ramification of Korah’s “we are all holy” as is, without the necessity of sacrifice and striving, and a confirmation of the fact that there are no absolutes with regard to what is proper or improper conduct. Everyone has the right to his feelings, and everyone is right from his/her point of view. Ethics are “situational,” dependent upon one’s situation, and every individual is a genius when it comes to justifying his desires in his subjective situation.
This is a far cry from Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents which presumes the price of limiting one’s desires in order to form a civil society; it is the very antithesis of the Jewish ideal of “perfecting the world in the Kingship of the Divine” and the necessity of self-sacrifice in order to achieve that goal.
What was the greater crime, worshipping Pe’or or indulging in public fornication? They are both precisely the very same thing. Pe’or teaches that if one feels like fornicating one fornicates, when and with whom one wishes to do it. After all, sex has nothing to do with love and sanctity and everything to do with a natural physical urge, much more in line with defecation than a sacred union.
From this perspective, the Rabbinical voices like the Meiri were absolutely correct: idolatry has little to do with theology and much to do with the “disgusting, immoral practices” of those who follow the teachings of the likes of Pe’or.