Police investigators have a truism they try to keep in mind in the immediate aftermath of a crime, “The first story you hear about an incident will always change”. Ours is an age of impulsive verdicts. But rushed conclusions often require the leavening of time to achieve fuller understanding.
The most flagrant sin in the entire Torah occurred in last week’s portion. The Children of Israel were seduced into licentious idolatry on a massive scale at Baal Peor. Pinhas’ zealous intervention prevents God from bringing about the People’s demise “his zeal prevented Me from finishing the Children of Israel” (Num. 25:11). Curiously, we wait a week’s time to learn of how God’s Torah appraises Pinhas’ zealotry. Even more curiously, we will wait another week to learn that the person responsible for inciting the orgiastic idolatry was none other than the Prophet Bilaam (Num. 31:16). Why does the Torah wait so long to tell us of Bilaam’s culpability?
Perhaps in waiting to share this information, the Torah conveys that things are not always as they seem. Bilaam’s bias toward blessing instead of curse is not so clear, after all is said and done. Maybe the Torah prefers to focus on Israel’s behavior. Highlighting Bilaam’s involvement might deflect attention away from showing how quickly people can succumb to carnal urges. Or perhaps the Torah is conveying that nobody can escape reckoning. Even when a person’s misdeed appears to go undetected, eventually it is unmasked. There is yet another reason to delay the revelation of Bilaam’s involvement that draws upon all of these explanations. Making Bilaam’s guilt too conspicuous would have outsourced too much responsibility. The Prophet may have encouraged the Midianite women’s actions, but the Children Israel were ultimately accountable for having been seduced.
How often do we evade responsibility by outsourcing an incident’s cause? Causes are not excuses. Explanations are not exonerations.
Religious leaders today cannot evade responsibility for restoring morally-robust religious authenticity. The malpractice of ultra-Orthodox of every faith must not suppress the beauty and blessed of the sacred. May the time-lapsed association between an iniquity and its inciter help inspire us to be more accountable and empowered to warm faith wherever it has been chilled.