Why did Pinchas kill Kozbi? Was it because of her immoral sexual seduction of an Israelite, Zimri ben Salou, or because she and her Midianite clan worshipped the idol Pe’or? Rashi (ad loc.) is aware of the ambiguity of the verse, and suggests that the end-goal of the Midianites, and the reason for which they sent their daughters to tempt the Israelite men, was to get the Israelites to worship Pe’or.
And, in fact, there does seem to be a strong linkage between blatant sexual immorality among Jew and gentile, and worship of Pe’or as the mother of all idolatries. But what exactly is the central nature of the transgression here? Sexual immorality between Jew and gentile, or Pe’or idolatry?
I would argue that a careful reading of Pinchas’ act clearly emphasizes a fusion of two intermingled transgressions. In last week’s Torah portion, the introduction to the story of public cohabitation begins:
“And the Israelites dwelt in Shittim, and began to whore after the daughters of Moab. And it happened that the Israelite nation served their idols…and Israel became joined to Ba’al Pe’or; the anger of God waxed hot against Israel” [ibid., v. 1–3].
What was the sin? Was it whoring, or the idolatry of Pe’or? Clearly, it was both together! This notion of the fusion of sins appears in our rabbinic commentaries. Bil’am is identified as “ben Beor” (ibid., 22:5) which might be identified with Pe’or, son of the idol Pe’or. And when the narrative continues to describe how “Balak took Bil’am to the top of Mount Pe’or” (ibid., 23:28), Rashi comments, “Balak was a great magician, and he saw that the Israelites would eventually be punished because of Pe’or,” which apparently applies to idolatry.
However, when the Talmud describes the evil counsel that Bil’am offered the nations who wished to vanquish Israel, the picture presented is one of sexual seduction by the young gentile women [Sanhedrin 106a]. It would seem that the sin was an idolatry linked to sexual abandon, both transgressions joined together.
In order to truly understand this, as well as to understand the idolatrous nature of our own society today, we must attempt to understand the nature of Pe’or idolatry. The Mishnah [Sanhedrin 7:6] teaches that Pe’or was worshipped by defecating in front of his graven image, the kind of “appetizing” religious cult which one would think hardly could attract masses of adherents.
Yet apparently Pe’or was very popular, at least for Midianites and Moabites. Yes, defecation is a perfectly normal human function, and the individual who relieves himself genuinely feels relieved! Hence, goes this thought, that is exactly how god is to be served! “Do whatever is natural to do, do whatever makes you feel good”.
Is this not merely a cultural precursor to much of contemporary, postmodern, egocentric, hedonistic thought toward life?! Discipline and consistency have become the “hobgoblin of little minds,” and self-expression takes precedence over duty to family, to country, and to ideals. It is a mindset that grants individuals the right not only to their own opinion but also to make up their own facts.
This is the very antithesis of the Biblical directive (at the predawn of human history in the Garden of Eden) for self-control and self-limitation – not eating forbidden fruit and defining good and evil based on God’s objective Divine will, not on one’s subjective, instinctive desires.
Pe’or denies absolute morality. For Pe’or, the human is no different from animal; he is a creature of instinct, who may defecate publicly just as animals defecate publicly, and he has no innate responsibility – not even before God.
What was the greater crime, worshipping Pe’or or indulging in public fornication? In truth, they are one and the same. 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.
Rabbinical voices such as Menachem Meiri (13th Century Spain) were absolutely correct: idolatry has less 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. Zimri ben Salou was not only expressing his desire; he was rebelling against Moses, against God, and against the very foundation of Torah.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.