Our Eternal Battle with the Ideology of Pe'or
Summarized by Joey Shabot
The last section of our parasha tells the story of Am Yisrael succumbing to two sins: harlotry with the women of Moav and the worshipping of their deity.
Two verses describe this idol-worship: "And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. And Yisrael joined itself to Ba'al Pe'or, and the anger of Hashem was kindled against Yisrael" (Bamidbar 25:2-3).
Apparently, these verses describe two distinct groups of idol worshippers. We know from other places in Torah that the main deity of Moav was not Pe'or, but rather Kemosh (see Bamidbar 21:29, Melakhim I 11:33, Yirmiyiahu 48:46, etc.). Kemosh was worshipped through sacrifices and genuflection, as described in the first verse. Pe'or, however, was worshipped in a very different manner: not through sacrifices but rather through undressing in front of and defecating on the idol figure (see the gemara quoted by Rashi here).
It is significant that the latter verse, discussing the worship of Pe'or, tells us of Hashem's anger. Furthermore, whenever the Torah refers to the sin with the women of Moav, it refers to it as "the matter of Pe'or" (Bamidbar 25:18, 31:16), a clear indication that Pe'or represented the essence of the sin. The number of people who died as a result of this sin was 24,000. Even the sin of the Golden Calf resulted in no more than 3,000 deaths! What precisely was so bad about Pe'or per se, and why does Pe'or receive such prominence as the central sin in this story?
The key to this question lies in the answer to another, more straightforward problem: what was it that made Benei Yisrael, just praised by Bil'am for not adopting perverse and foreign elements (23:9, 21, 23) succumb to this particularly bizarre form of idol worship?
Let us think for a moment beyond the specific manner in which Pe'or was worshipped, and consider the ideology behind it. Pe'or represents an ideology still fashionable today, containing two elements: man living and behaving as he would in his most natural state, and as a result, losing the feeling of common shame (busha) that would otherwise characterize man as distinct from the animals.
According to this ideology, there is no reason for man to feel shame. What is natural is good! Why should fulfilling his most basic and natural physical functions be any cause for hiding? In fact, one would expect the opposite from a God-fearing nation - that man, in celebration of a perfect creation (his wondrous body, and a perfect natural world around him), should do nothing less than embrace nature just as it is, proudly flaunting it as God made it, without adding or taking away. And therefore, it would be perfectly appropriate for these ideas to find expression in nothing less than the very worship of the divine, in the culture of such a nation. Viewed from such a perspective, the manner of Pe'or-worship is indeed articulate poetry, expressing a developed philosophical stance - a stance, however, that Judaism strenuously rejects.
The Torah opens with the theme of the tension between pure nature and shame. The effect of eating from the tree of knowledge, it will be remembered, was to "know the difference between good and bad" (Bereishit 2:17). Immediately after tasting from this tree and thus now having the ability to distinguish, Adam and Chava's first action is to cover their nakedness, fashioning makeshift clothing from the first material in sight (3:7). Adam clearly articulates his first reaction to realizing that he was not dressed: "I was afraid because I was naked..." (3:10). Later, it is Hashem Himself who clothes Adam and Chava (3:21).
The Kabbalists express this idea as central to the whole of creation. Jumble the letters of the first word of the Torah, "Bereishit," and you can get "Yere boshet" - mindful of shame, which represents the antithesis of unharnessed nature and the antithesis of Ba'al Pe'or. It is man's job not to be merely part of nature, but to transcend it and perfect it.
Between the days of Ba'al Pe'or and our times, there have been yet others who questioned the theological assertion that man must to a certain degree alter God's creation. In the well-known midrash (Tanchuma, parashat Tazria), Turnus Rufus, a Roman ruler, questions R. Akiva: "Whose actions are more becoming, God's or man's?" R. Akiva, preempting him, asserts that man's actions are more becoming, and as evidence he illustrates that wheat is useless until man bakes bread with it, and flax is useless until man weaves it. Here, the Roman is really questioning the Jews' audacity in circumcising their males - how do we dare alter what God made? Indeed, R. Akiva provides an articulate response. His point resounds through the mitzvot, starting from circumcision and extending to such mitzvot as orlat ilan (waiting three years before enjoying the fruit of a tree) and the concept of tzniut (modesty). The same God who created the world also commanded human beings that the world's natural state is not always perfect or good, and that it is left to man to perfect the world.
The rejection of Pe'or's "natural" ideology finds expression not only in the Torah's opening and various mitzvot, but also at its very end. In describing Moshe Rabbeinu's burial place, the Torah reads "in the valley in the land of Moav against (mul) Beit Pe'or" (Devarim 34:6). Immediately, one cannot help but wonder if the Torah could not find a more complementary manner in which to describe the location, and if it could not have closed with prettier imagery than Pe'or? The Torah's purpose in summoning associations of the incident described in our parasha, as well as the strategic placement of the grave of Moshe, who can be seen as the embodiment of Torah, becomes obvious in light of the above. The Torah's challenge to Pe'or's ideology, and the CONFRONTATION it presents, is clearly symbolized here by the pure contrast: Moshe and his Torah, vs. Pe'or and its temple. Moshe remains eternally poised against Pe'or.
One of the tenets of our Torah is that not everything that is natural is wholesome. And in effect, all of Torah is sandwiched, from Bereishit to Ve-zot Ha-berakha, between reminders of this value.
(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Balak 5757 .)