Surviving an existential threat is a harrowing experience. Whether it’s a knife pressed against the throat, a gun pointed at the chest, a rocket fired from Gaza against a home in Israel or other imminent threat of fatal harm, it shakes our complacency.
Sometimes we are unaware of the jeopardy in real-time and only learn about it after the fact. Nevertheless, the shock felt upon discovery may be no less impactful. Imagine being stalked by a killer and not knowing about it until after he is subdued. The immediate reaction might be relief. However, upon reflection, comes the realization that a lack of knowledge about a mortal threat provides no genuine solace. Frankly, appreciating how exposed and vulnerable we truly are to an aggressor able to strike without warning is even more frightening; the feeling can be overwhelming.
Emotions can run high and include a cascade of powerful and extreme feelings. These might range from elation to despondency, righteous indignation to abject fear, guilt to reckless abandon and humbleness to haughtiness.
Reactions can also vary and span a spectrum of responses, not necessarily defined by the nature of the emotions felt. Thus, feeling elation might not necessarily trigger a spiritual response. It could just as well generate a materialistic one. The search for meaning in life, a natural result of this kind of a nerve-racking experience, does not guarantee an outcome. The experience of being in extremis may also lead to extreme reactions. Some might pursue an exclusively spiritual existence, even if that means sacrificing the material aspects of life. After all, what better indication is there of divine providence than being saved from harm? Others, though, may conclude life is short and choose to live it up with abandon. This includes pursuing even the depraved life style of a sybarite without boundaries.
Is this what happened when Moses revealed the scheme by Balak and Bilaam, as described in the Torah reading last week[i], to destroy the Jewish People? The Jewish people had been blissfully unaware of what was afoot around them. They had no direct interaction with Bilaam and Balak at the time. Moses, though, perceived it prophetically[ii]. When Moses told everyone about the existential threat they had faced, including how they avoided being fatally cursed and instead were blessed, the reactions might have been similar to the ones described above. This might help explain the uncharacteristic besotting[iii] by thousands of Jewish men with Midianite women in the infamous episode known as Baal Peor.
Consider, as even the notorious Bilaam recognized, the Jewish people were renown for their propriety, devotion to family and respect for boundaries[iv]. For hundreds of years in Egypt and for almost forty years in the wilderness, they had resisted these kinds of base urges and straying[v]. It was one of their signature achievements, which merited the miraculous Exodus. What changed to make them suddenly unable to control these impulses[vi]?
It is suggested that hearing from Moses how they dodged a veritable extinction event, orchestrated by Bilaam and Balak, was profoundly distressing to many. In modern terms, it was akin to hearing a devastating nuclear strike was miraculously avoided, at the last minute, by the grace of G-d. Although many felt spiritual elation because of the divine intervention on their behalf, this did not translate into noble conduct by everyone. Indeed, it had the opposite effect on some; triggering reckless abandon of traditional boundaries and disreputable behavior[vii].
Zimri ben Zur, the leader of the Tribe of Shimon[viii], assumed a prominent role in this salacious saga. His shameless misconduct is alluded to in the Bible[ix]. The Talmud[x] and Midrash[xi] provide a vivid account, in graphic detail, of the event and as to the personalities of Zimri and his erstwhile consort, Cozbi. Zimri is described as a brazen and haughty self-promoter. He had a high opinion of himself and thought he was great and invincible. He self-righteously sought to justify his misbehavior by directly confronting Moses[xii] in flagrante delicto. Cozbi is reported to be the daughter of King[xiii] Balak[xiv]. She willingly prostituted herself, as a part of the insidious scheme Bilaam devised and provided to her father Balak, in an attempt to undermine and defeat the Jewish people. As a skilled con-woman[xv], she was perfectly typecast in this seductive role. Together, they were a pair of con-people on the prowl. Much like in a classic film noir, with a prototypical ironic plot twist, they manage only to seduce each other[xvi]. The innocent hero then emerges in the end to save the day.
In this Biblical saga, Pinchas is cast in the role of the hero, who confronts Zimri. Pinchas is otherwise a humble and spiritually minded individual, who is the polar opposite of Zimri[xvii]. He is not an angry person by nature and it would be a gross mischaracterization to paint him as a homicidal fanatic. His response of righteous indignation to the outrageous conduct of Zimri and zealous intervention[xviii] was an anomalous episode. It was dictated by the catastrophic crises faced by the Nation of Israel, at the time. People were dying because of a plague G-d inflicted on the people due to this grievous sin of Baal Peor[xix]. Pinchas exercised extra-judicial punishment against Zimri and Cozbi and executed them[xx]. Although he managed to stem the plague that had by then killed upwards of twenty-four thousand people[xxi], he was not universally lauded for his vigilante conduct. He was vilified by many who baselessly impugned his character and motives[xxii]. The Talmud[xxiii] reports that he was detained, while the court investigated the purity of his motives and propriety of his actions. There was no assurance his exercise of vigilante justice would be retrospectively sanctioned by the court. Fortunately for him, G-d intervened again to save him by affording him G-d’s covenant of peace.
The climactic conclusion of this saga is reported in this week’s Torah portion[xxiv]. It is an ennobling description of how a good man forced by fate to perform a thankless task, saved his people and in the process restored balance. This required much more than just eliminating the threat. Indeed, the saintly Pinchas experienced intense emotional disquiet as a result of his action[xxv]. After executing Zimri, the fatally flawed leader and provocateur, who misled his Tribe into wrongdoing, he just wanted the dying to end. He could not remain a one-dimensional zealot jealously guarding G-d prerogatives. Looking at all the misery surrounding him, he appreciated those surrounding him may have sinned or condoned it; but they nevertheless could be redeemed. He proceeded to he pray for them to be saved, instead of continuing as G-d’s instrument of justice to strike them down. He argued with G-d[xxvi] to stop the plague. It was a transformational experience and he was rewarded with G-d’s Briti Shalom[xxvii]. This afforded him inner peace and tranquility and he became whole again.
In the process he enabled equilibrium to be restored not only to himself, but also to the entire community[xxviii]. By his striking act of kindness to his fellow men, in the midst of a veritable maelstrom, he healed the rift within the community that had resulted from the extremely divisive influence of Zimri and his cadre. They recognized if a saint and zealot like Pinchas could demonstrate such compassion and sensitivity to the needs of even flawed individuals, then why couldn’t they also show some heart and bring some of the spiritual into their lives? Acting out in extremes of behavior at either end of the spectrum was not the correct path. Everyone rallied around G-d’s prescription for the good life, as embodied in the Torah, which seamlessly integrates the spiritual into our physical existence on this world.
It’s a lesson for all time and especially our times. We must not let ourselves become attached to a wholly mundane existence rooted only in the physical, as represented by Baal Peor[xxix]. Neither is a monastic, ostensibly entirely spiritual, existence the answer. Living a life at one extreme or another is problematic. It is hard to sustain a wholly material existence or spiritual one. Both the soul and body have needs and keeping either wholly unsatisfied is an unhealthy choice. This is one of the poingnant underlying themes of the incident of Baal Peor. Indeed, this was the underlying reason why Balak, the King of Moav[xxx], sought out Bilaam to wage a war of extermination on the Jewish people.
Moav had no legitimate concern about the Jewish people entering the Land of Israel. They posed no threat to Moav. Indeed, as the Bible[xxxi] notes, G-d instructed the Jewish people not to invade Moav. What then was Balak’s problem with the Jews? Moav could have lived side by side with the Jewish people in Israel, in harmony; why attack them?
The Shem MiShmuel[xxxii] analyzes Balak’s disturbing reasoning. He was quite amenable to the Jewish people pursuing a spiritual path while sequestered in the confines of the wilderness. However, he was most concerned that when they entered the Land of Israel, they would demonstrate how that spiritual quality could successfully be integrated into the everyday life of a farmer. It was a model of life that he disdained and until now he didn’t have to compete with it in practice. He, therefore, wanted this almost utopian vision of a life, antagonistic to his own weltanschauung, to be eliminated before it had a chance to take root and flourish.
Balak’s ethos bears a striking resemblance to that of Israel’s modern day antagonists. They are not content to live side by side with Israel in peace. It appears that Israel’s outsized success, both spiritually and materially, as a democratic, inclusive and innovative society, lies at the heart of the issue. Like Balak and his notorious cabal of ancient Moav and Midian, they find it hard to compete with the glorious reality of Israel. Like Balak, they may even feel that by comparison it mocks their own failures. Rather than partnering with Israel to spread its blessings throughout the Middle East and the world, they seem to be doing their best to frustrate any progress. BDS and the rejection of any solution that allows for a secure and prosperous Jewish State of Israel to exist are just example of this cynical attitude.
Our mission is to continue to succeed, employing the ancient and traditional model of integrating the spiritual and material that has served us so well throughout the ages. We should not be daunted by the baseless hatred that continues to dog us. We also cannot allow ourselves to be conned by those on the fringes of the far left and right, who seek to seduce us with pious slogans and virtuous sounding propaganda. Their offers of attachment to a resurrected Baal Peor of intersectional bliss are just another ruse seeking our undoing.
Our measure of achievement is actually helping to better the lives of people around the world. Instead of just virtue signaling or talking about good deeds, Israel is making a real contribution to improving the world. May G-d continue to shower us with the blessing of peace and completeness. Am Yisroal Chai.
[i] Parshat Balak, Numbers 22:2-24:25.
[ii] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, at page 14b-15a, which records that Moshe wrote the portion of Balaam in the Torah. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sota 5:6, at page 26a, which makes a similar reference, although it is referred to as Parshat Balak U’Bilaam. Reference should also be made to Tosafot commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, page 31b.
[iii] Numbers, Chapter 25, which straddles Parshat Balak and Pinchas.
[iv] Numbers 24:5.
[v] Leviticus Rabbah 32:5.
[vi] Interestingly, the Numbers Rabbah (20:22-25) analyzes numbers 25:1 and suggests there might have been something in the water that affected judgment and impulse control.
[vii] See the Shenei Luchot HaBrit (Shelah) Torah commentary, by 16th century Rabbi Isaiah HaLevi Horovitz), Torah Shebichtav, Shoftim, Torah Ohr 32-33, as well as, the 13th century commentary by Rabbi Menachem Benjamin Recanati, on the Torah, Shoftim 16.
[viii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 82b.
[ix] Numbers 25:6.
[x] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 106a
[xi] See Sifrie, Bamidbar 131:2, as well as, Exodus Rabbah 33:5.
[xii] Ibid. As this Midrash notes, he baited Moses by asserting Moses also had a Midianite spouse. Therefore, Zimri asserted why was he any less a person because he consorted with a Midianite woman.
[xiii] According to Targum Yonatan (on Numbers 22:4), he was a Midianite by birth, who became the King of Moav.
[xiv] Targum Yonatan on Numbers 25:15 notes that Balak so hated the Jewish people that he was willing to enlist his own daughter, Cozbi, as a prostitute to corrupt them.
[xv] See Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz’s 16th century Kli Yakar commentary on Numbers 25:14, who notes she was a skilled charlatan and the words she uttered with her mouth were at variance with what she felt in her heart.
[xvi] Cozbi had actually set out to seduce Moses, as noted in Sifrei, Bamidbar 131:2.
[xvii] See Rabbi Shmuel Eidels’ Maharsha commentary on Babylonian Talmud, Tracate Sota, page 22b.
[xviii] Numbers 25:2-9.
[xix] Numbers 25:8.
[xx] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara at page 36b and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7.
[xxi] Numbers 25:9.
[xxii] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at page 82b.
[xxiii] Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 9:7, at page 48b.
[xxiv] Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 25:10-18, as well as, Chapter 26.
[xxv] See the Netziv’s 19th century commentary on the Torah, the Haemek Davar, Parshat Pinchas, Numbers 25:12.
[xxvi] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Brachot, at pages 26a and 6b; Sanhedrin at page 82a; and Chullin, at page 134b. See also Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Brachot 4:1, at page 29b. Reference is also made to Psalms 106:30 and the Sifrie Devarim 165:14, as well as 326:6. Cf. Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, at pages 44a and 82b, where Rabbi Elazar interprets the word ‘Vayipalel’, not as prayer, but as exercising G-d’s judgments against the wrongdoers.
[xxvii] The phrase Briti Shalom is often loosely translated as covenant of peace. However, this may be insufficient to convey the full meaning of the term Shalom. In this context, the term may also communicate a sense of completeness, as noted above.
[xxviii] See Rabbi Yitzchak Arama’s 15th century philosophic work the Akeidat Yitzchak 83:1:6.
[xxix] Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin (at page 106a) reports even its manner of worship is debasingly physical, involving the act of defecation before the idol.
[xxx] Number 22:4 and10, Joshua 24:9 and Micah 6:5.
[xxxi] Deuteronomy 2:9.
[xxxii] Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain of Sochatchov’s early 20th century commentary on Balak, Chapter 1.
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