Drash given at Congregation Shomrei Torah, June 29, 2018
It’s been a week, as I’ve already said. It’s been a month, a year, a long time, when things feel hard. And we turn to our tradition to see if we can find solace or something to hold on to, or maybe even something to help us think about our current reality.
This is one of those weeks when the Torah portion is more challenging than usual. Oh, it starts out well—here at Balak, deep into Numbers. The story of the talking ass is entertaining and there is something to learn from it, and we find Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov–how goodly are your tents, Jacob…right there.
However, I find myself drawn to the story that ends the parasha and spills over into next week’s…the story of the whoring and idol worship of our men with the Moabite women.
25 While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, 2who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. 3Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and יהוהwas incensed with Israel. 4יהוהsaid to Moses, “Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before יהוה, so that יהוהs wrath may turn away from Israel.” 5So Moses said to Israel’s officials, “Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor.” 6Just then one of the Israelite notables came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. 7When Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, 8he followed the Israelite notable into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite notable and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. 9Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand.
Nine verses. So much to unpack.
Here in the midst of #MeToo, I noticed first the whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. I’m actually kind of shocked that I don’t remember the explicitness of the whoring… Rashi blames it squarely on the women—he wrote: “When the man got aroused and said to the Moabite women, “Give in to me,” she would take an idol of Peor out of her bosom and say, ‘worship this.’” Nachmanides notes that it was not that the Moabite women were promiscuous: their husbands and the Moabite leaders told them to do this—to seduce the Israelites into the worship of Baal-peor.
That’s almost too painful to think about. Here, seduce these men as an act of war. It’s your duty.
While the text sounds very much like it’s the women’s fault, Rashi and Nachmanides seem to be saying, “You just can’t trust men when they are aroused, and well, the women were pimped by their menfolk to tempt the Israelite men into idol worship.” The whoring was only the entrance drug to idol worship.
Do you all remember the three cardinal sins in Judaism, the ones we should die before committing? Murder, sexual impropriety and idol worship. (B.Sanhedrin 76a)
There are a number of explanations for these three…One comes from the beginning of the Mishna:
Shimon HaTzaddik, one of the last members of the Great Assembly, used to say: On three things the world stands. On Torah, on Service of G-d, and on deeds of kindness. Al shlosha devarim: Al hatorah, v’al ha’avodah v’al gemilut chasadim…(Pirkei Avot 1:2).
The three cardinal sins, the rabbis taught, are the very opposite, what could bring down the very foundations of the world, or the fabric of society. Murder: we can’t just decide to kill each other. This is the opposite of acts of loving kindness.
Idol worship seems clearly the opposite of worship—avodah vs.avodah zarah(strange or idol worship).
The sexual improprieties…some teach that this is about people devolving to their animal instincts, as far opposite of what Torah is supposed to do: elevate us. Others teach that rape is akin to murder. (That surprised me. And made me happy. (Deuteronomy 22:26, B. Yoma 82a.))
All of these rip at the fabric of our society, our agreements about how to live together. Preying on women; killing people; following after false gods—greed, power, fame—all of these make us less than we could be.
With this in mind, let’s get back to our nine verses:
Some of the men of Israel attached themselves to the Moabite god and יהוה, our God, was incensed. God ordered Moses that the men who had strayed should be impaled and hung under the sun—in public—for their idol-worship…
Before the chieftains can fulfill this order, we hear much weeping and wailing. Clearly things were not good.
At that point, adding fuel to the fire, one more fellow brings a Midianite woman to the Tent of Meeting and does something egregious there. Some commentators claim he brought her to pass around to his friends. Others say they had sex in front of all the community, in front of the Tent of Meeting—you know, the place where God dwelled among us. But it met the criteria for one of the cardinal sins.
Now, Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, leaves the weeping and wailing crew and comes back to impale the couple, and thus ends the plague that had been wreaking havoc and death. None of the heads of the people had to go out and kill their own sinners. Two people killed while in flagrante—and everything goes back to normal.
The rabbis intentionally split this story in two. It continues next week, when God gives Pinchas God’s covenant of peace—for having killed the two in front of the Tent of Meeting.
For years, I have railed against this idea. As did the rabbis—and indeed every torah scroll somehow marks the vav in the word shalom for covenant of peace—either making it smaller or showing a break in it—as their commentary on this “covenant of peace”.
But this year, in our #MeToo year, I am wondering (remembering that murder is the third cardinal sin—AND that God had called on leadership to kill the sinners): was killing 2 people the worst thing that was done in this story? Was killing two people to save scores of others reasonable?
What would you do?
What IS acceptable to do in the face of immorality? How far can we go to protest, to resist it? We can march in the streets. We can write our representatives. We can make our voices heard in restaurants. We can refuse to participate in the immoral acts.
But is there a time when something more might be called for? And if so, what?
Might there come times when violence is the answer? By the way, studies show that violent resistance is generally less effective than civil disobedience and peaceful protest. But never be fooled that civil disobedience will be viewed as civil by the powerful.
This feels vital to me as we listen to the debate about what is acceptable protest and what is not. On the one hand, I want us all to be polite—do what Michelle Obama urged us—when they go low, we go high.
But on the other hand, when their low—and by “their”, I mean the powerful, undermines democratic norms, puts the vulnerable at risk, separates children from their families because they are brown and not white, and—or imprisons them indefinitely, seeks to deny due process, and lies incessantly, then peaceful protest, even if it is loud, is acceptable—and even to be considered a mitzvah.
It is standing up against immorality, against the whoring and idol worship of our time.
But, back to the Torah portion: am I willing to endorse killing for it, give Pinchas his covenant of peace?
Maimonides reiterates that it is never okay to kill an innocent…better we should die instead. But what about someone who is sinning so flagrantly—akin to having sex in front of the Tent of Meeting? (Yesodei Hatorah 5:2) I’ve never been a supporter of the death penalty, an issue Jewish tradition is supremely ambivalent, if that’s not an oxymoron.
This week, with all the terrible news from the Supreme Court and the border and Lake County fires, I find that I have to hold my moral center—and I’d really really like everyone else to do the same. That means both being kind to each other and standing up to the powers that try to divide us, to destroy the good and sow the seeds of discord.
That means being mindful of what we are doing with our words. Would that instead of cursing each other as Balak ordered Bilaam to do to us, we could in turn bless each other—offer words and actions of kindness, caring and love…We’re not there right now. But each ripple of hope, each time we practice kindness to people without power, brings us closer to the day when we can do this.
I hold the words of Isaiah 10:
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
2 to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the orphan.
Let’s stand up for those people, peacefully, and with resolve.