Balak | Succumbing to Seduction
I. A New Strategy
The Israelites' encampment on the plains of Moab arouses the trepidation of the people of Moav. Balak, king of Moav, resorts to calling on the services of the famous magician/prophet Bil'am to curse the Israelites. This desperate attempt at thwarting the invading Israelites backfires when God transforms Bil'am's curse into a blessing: "How shall I curse, whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?" (23:8). The Israelites prove impervious to the witchcraft of Bil'am. "The Lord their God is with them" (23:21). After this futile attempt at overcoming the Israelite threat, the Moabites change their strategy. If curses do not work on Israel, maybe a different approach will:
"Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and bowed down to their gods. Thus, Israel attached itself to Ba'al-Pe'or and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, 'Take all the leaders of the people and hang them before the Lord against the sun, so that the Lord's wrath may turn away from Israel.' So Moses said to the judges of Israel, 'Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Ba'al-Pe'or.' ... Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand" (Numbers 25:1-5,9).
"If you can't beat them, join them" or, in our case, make them join you. Cursing or battling the Israelites is not a plausible option, so the Moabites attempt to assimilate the Israelites into the Moabite people and the Moabite faith. This is accomplished by setting a bait. Moabite women succeed in enticing the Israelites into sexual relationships which lead to shared religious worship of the Moabite god. The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) describes this change in strategy on the part of the Moabites as follows:
"Balak at first wanted to curse them [the Israelites] and to wage war against them, and he did not want to give them permission to enter his borders at all. But when Bil'am told him that he would not prevail over them ... then he [Balak] brought forth bread and wine in the plains of Moav and enticed them [with the daughters of Moav] as if he were their friend."
The ploy proves successful; the Israelites bite the bait and commit harlotry with the Moabite women. The people who were immune to the curses of Bil'am fall prey to the seductions of the daughters of Moav. Bil'am, when describing the mighty Israelite nation, relates that: "He [God] has not beheld iniquity in Jacob nor has he seen perverseness in Israel, the Lord their God is with them ... there is no divination in Israel" (23:21,23). Yet, after meeting the women of Moav, we find both perverseness and idolatry in Israel! The Israelites aren't as powerful as they were cut out to be; they have a weakness, a gaping hole in their defenses. Ironically, it is the Israelites themselves who bring about their enfeeblement. In the words of Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888): "The sword of no stranger, the curse of no stranger had the power to harm Israel; only Israel itself could bring misfortune, by seceding from God and His Torah." They fell prey to the seduction of the women of Moav and sinned against God.
II. A Desecration of God's Name
There exist several possibilities in translating the opening verse of our section, 'VA-YACHEL ha-am liznot' (25:1). Certain editions translate "the people BEGAN to commit harlotry" while others translate "the people PROFANED themselves by committing harlotry." This divergence in translation is rooted in a disagreement amongst the commentators regarding the interpretation of the Hebrew word 'va-yachel.' The Targum Onkelus (Aramaic translation, Israel, 2nd century), is of the opinion that the root of the word 'va-yachel' is 'TACHAL,' to begin. Hence, he translates, "the people BEGAN to commit harlotry." According to this approach, our verse highlights that the Israelites begin by committing harlotry and this only later, leads to idolatry. The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yosef Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12 century) disagrees:
"'Va-yachel' - They became PROFANED to harlotry for whoever commits harlotry is defiled. So too [in the verse] 'when the daughter of a priest DEFILES herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles'" (Leviticus 21:9).
The Bekhor Shor deems the root of the word 'va-yachel' to be 'CHOL,' profane: Hence, he would translate "the people PROFANED themselves by committing harlotry." According to this approach, the focus of our verse is not the order or chronology of events, harlotry leading to idolatry. Rather, the focus is on describing the outcome of sin, the resulting profanation and defilement.
The Bekhor Shor cites a verse from Leviticus relating to the harlotry of a priest's daughter in support of his interpretation. The verse in Leviticus includes the word 'teCHEL liznot' which is interpreted as profaning or defiling. So too, in our verse, the word 'va-yachel' is interpreted as profaning. This comparison between the harlotry of the people with the women of Moav and the harlotry of a priest's daughter is instructive not only from a lexicographic perspective. It also sheds light on the gravity of the sin committed by the Israelites.
A sin of a priest's daughter is viewed as being particularly harsh. She comes from a distinguished family and her behavior should reflect this. Sinful behavior, on her part, does not only defile herself, "it is her father whom she defiles." According to the Bekhor Shor, the Torah uses the same verb to describe defilement of a priest's daughter and the profanation of the Israelites through their harlotry with the Moabites. Although the priestly family has additional commandments, more stringent than the rest of the nation, the people, as a whole, also have a distinguished mission and status. They are to be a "NATION OF PRIESTS, a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). Just as a priest's daughter represents her father's house, so too, the people of Israel, represent God. The nation selected to be a holy nation, the people of God, stoop to the most base animal-like behavior. The holy was desecrated in the most vulgar of manners, in wanton and lustful behavior and a total loss of self-control. The Israelites' conduct was the antithesis of holiness, of the life prescribed by the Torah. They not only defiled themselves; it was also a horrible desecration of God's name.
III. The Roots of Sin
How did the holy nation deteriorate to such licentious promiscuity? Our Sages offer the following comment on the opening words of our section, "And Israel ABODE in Shittim:"
"Wherever you find the expression 'to sit,' ('yeshiva'-translated 'abode'), you will find that some great wrongdoing occurred there ... 'And Israel abode ('va-yeshev') in Shittim.' What was the wrongdoing there? 'And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav'" (Exodus Rabba 41:7).
The Torah preempts the account of the harlotry with the daughters of Moav with the designation, "And Israel ABODE in Shittim." Our Sages point out the negative connotation of the verb 'yashav'- 'to sit', or as translated in our verse, 'abode.' This verb, to sit, usually anticipates wrongdoing. What is the connection between sitting and sin? Although our Sages do not elaborate, their intention is clear. Sitting signifies a cessation of progress, an arrest in the march forward. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, Lithuania, 1817-1893) comments that this sitting was not only a stop in the people's physical advance, but indicates, primarily, a slackness and lethargy in the spiritual sphere, in the study of Torah. As long as the Israelites were diligent in their study of the Torah, they were safe from sin. However, after neglecting Torah their spiritual state declined and they succumbed to temptations. To sit, to halt one's growth and development inevitably terminates in regression. When one stands still, he is actually degenerating. There is no such thing as spiritual inertia. One is either advancing or regressing. As the Israelites "abode" in Shittim, as they halted there, they immediately began a moral degeneration.
IV. Intermarriage and Idolatry
The episode with the daughters of Moav involved two sins. It involved harlotry, a disintegration into animal-like behavior and free license to physical drives. This, in turn, leads to a second sin, idolatry, a direct rebellion against God: "the people began to commit harlotry with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and bowed down to their gods. Thus, Israel attached itself to Ba'al-Pe'or, and the Lord was incensed with Israel."
It is clear from Scripture that the sins are interrelated. One sin leads to the other. What requires clarification is the exact relationship between the sins. If the Israelites succumbed to their physical urges and fell prey to the seduction of the Moabite women, what led them to become involved in idolatry? After witnessing all the miracles in the desert, they surely knew better! Rashi, citing our Sages, offers the following explanation:
"When [an Israelite's] urge was at its strongest and he would say [to the Moabite woman] "consent to me" she would bring forth for him an image of the [pagan god] Pe'or and say to him "[first] bow down to this."
The Moabite women caught the Israelites at the peak of their desires and then convinced them to worship their god. The Israelite's lust overcame him to the point of excluding rational functioning. He would do anything to fulfill his sexual urges, even commit idolatry. The Seforno (Rabbi Ovadia Seforno, Italy, 1470-1550) further elaborates this position:
"'And the people began to commit harlotry' (25:1) - At the beginning, they did not worship idols at all but [their sole intent was to] commit harlotry; however, they were led to idolatry as the Torah cautioned when it prohibited intermarriage with the nations, as it says, 'you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you take wives from among their daughters ... their daughters will lust after their gods and will cause your sons to lust after their gods' (Exodus 34:15,16) ... For this is the way of the evil inclination, to lead one from evil to evil."
The Torah forbids the Israelites from intermarrying with the women of the surrounding nations. The reason for this prohibition is explicitly stated, "You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you take wives from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will lust after their gods and will cause your sons to lust after their gods" (Exodus 34:15,16). Scripture foreshadows that the taking of foreign wives will inevitably lead to the adoption of different cultures and alien beliefs. The Israelite will claim that he is not turning his back on his faith, that he and his new wife will remain loyal to God and His Torah. However, in short time, the Israelite is worshipping with his new wife a new god, celebrating different festivals and adopting a new lifestyle. It is not long before the intermarried Jew 'has a Christmas tree and escorts his wife to church.' This may not be his original intention, but the Torah warns us that this is what is likely to happen.
Our Sages offer a detailed description of this process of assimilation:
"They made booths for themselves and placed in them harlots in whose hands were all manner of desirable objects. An old woman would sit outside and keep watch for the girl who was inside the shop. When the Israelites passed by to purchase an article in the bazaar, the old woman would say to him: 'Young man! Would you not like some linen clothing that comes from Beth-Shean?' She would show it to him and say: 'Go inside and you will see some lovely articles!' The old woman would ask him for a higher price and the girl for a lower. After this the girl would say to him: 'You are now like one of the family! Sit down, and choose whatever you desire yourself!' A flask of wine stood by her, and as yet the wine of heathens had not been forbidden. A young woman would come out adorned and perfumed and would entice him, saying: 'Why is it that though we love you, you hate us? Take this article for nothing! Are we not all the children of one man? The children of Terach the father of Abraham? If you do not wish to eat of our sacrifices and of our cooking, behold, we have calves and cocks! Slaughter them in accordance with your own precepts and eat!' Thereupon she would make him drink the wine and the Satan would burn within him and he would be led astray after her; for it says, 'Harlotry, wine and new wine take away the heart' (Hosea 4:11). ...
Once the Israelite solicited her she would say to him: 'I will not listen to you until you slaughter this animal to Pe'or and bow down to the idol.' He would object: 'I will not bow down to idols!' She would answer him: 'You will only appear as though you were worshipping!' And so he would be led astray after her and do as he was bidden" (Midrash Rabba 2:23).
Our Sages describe the stages of the Israelites' sin in a vivid and penetrating manner. The meeting between peoples first takes place in the marketplace. Economic activity creates opportunities for interaction. The gentile saleswoman or business executive is charming and well dressed - a pleasure doing business with her. Business soon mixes with pleasure. Economic ties develop into social ones. The cold pragmatic world of economic transactions gives way to a cozier, more amicable environment. A little red wine is most suitable upon closing a deal. 'Business dinners' in fine restaurants create an excellent environment. The rest of the story, we know too well. The Torah, in its wisdom, sets social barriers to prevent the transpiration described by our Sages. It is forbidden to eat non-kosher foods. The wine of the gentiles was also forbidden. The necessity of these laws becomes apparent when we read of the rapid deterioration and assimilation of the Israelites upon coming into contact with the women of Moav.
V. In the Public Eye
The sin with Moav involved large segments of the nation. The plague which killed twenty-four thousand Israelites (see 25:9) in retribution for their transgressions testifies to the pervasiveness of the sinning in the Israelite camp. Our Sages describe the spread of the sin amongst the people as follows:
"Thus, Israel attached ('va-yeTZAMED') itself to Ba'al-Pe'or" (25:3) - 'At first they entered unobtrusively, but in the end they came in jointly ('TZEMED') in pairs.'"
At first, people were ashamed of exhibiting such disreputable behavior publicly. However, as more and more people joined, the sinners were no longer ashamed. They sinned publicly, in a 'tzemed,' in pairs, and no longer attempted to hide their decadence.
This may help explain the peculiar manner of punishment prescribed by God: "Take all the leaders of the people and hang them before the Lord against the sun" (25:4). The outstanding aspect of this punishment is its public nature, "before the Lord against the sun." The Seforno explains this as follows:
"'Against the sun' (25:4) - So that the people will see the execution of those who worshipped the idols and they will not protest and thus they will find atonement for not protesting against these sinners."
Punishment was to be carried out "against the sun" in full sight of all the nation. A public sin required a public punishment. The only way to repair the damage incurred by the massive scale sinning of the community was to administer a public punishment.
The Torah also stresses that the punishment must take place "before the Lord." This specification may be explained in light of the nature of the sin. We stated earlier that the Israelites' decadent behavior involved not only their own defilement, but also a horrible desecration of God's name. Hence, the punishment also serves as a correction for this desecration. The public hanging is carried out "before the Lord" as a reparation for the desecration of His name.
The verse describing the punishment prescribed by God is obscure: "Take all the leaders of the people and hang them before the Lord against the sun" (25:4). Who was to be hanged? There is a disagreement amongst our Sages on this matter:
"Rabbi Judah says: He hanged the leaders of the people because they did not admonish the people. Rabbi Nechemia says: He did not hang the leaders of the people. God says to Moses: 'Appoint for them judges who shall judge all those who worshipped Pe'or.'"
According to the second opinion, that of Rabbi Nechemia, God commanded Moses to assemble the leaders of the nation to judge the sinners and punish them. Rabbi Nechemia interprets the verse "Take all the leaders of the people and hang them" as relating to the sinners: "Hang THEM" - the sinners. The leaders must help Moses carry out justice. The leaders' involvement in the punishment of the sinners makes amends for the nation as a whole. By judging and punishing the sinners, the leaders disassociate themselves from the offenders and make a public statement condemning their behavior. Since so many of the nation were involved in the sin, it was necessary to firmly establish through the involvement of the leaders, public opposition and condemnation of the licentious behavior of the perpetrators.
The first opinion, that of Rabbi Judah, states that the leaders, themselves, were to be hung! Rabbi Judah interprets the pronoun "them" in reference to the leaders stated in the beginning of the verse: "Take all the leaders of the people and hang them" - hang the leaders. Why should the leaders be punished if they were not involved in the sin? Rabbi Judah explains that they are deserving of punishment since they did not protest and reprove the sinners. The Torah commands us: "You must admonish your neighbor and not bear sin because of him" (Leviticus 19:17). It is every Jew's responsibility to reprove his fellow Jew and prevent him from sinning. We may not turn a blind eye to others' sins. It is our obligation to at least attempt to prevent misconduct and wrongdoing. This obligation rests upon every individual, and, all the more so, on the leaders of the nation. The Torah holds he who does not attempt to dissuade his fellow human being from sinning as partly responsible for the sin. The innocent bystander is not so innocent; he sins as well. In contrast to the modern ethos which stresses only individual responsibility, 'to each his own,' the Torah stresses that there is also communal responsibility. The leaders who are charged with guiding the people failed in their calling; they did not attempt to prevent the Israelites from sinning. According to Rabbi Judah, this made them personally responsible for the sin, and consequently, deserving of punishment.
VI. Guarding Against Assimilation
It is both interesting and instructive to note that our Sages choose to bring the following homiletic interpretation specifically in conjunction with our portion:
"Our Rabbis taught: Israel were redeemed from Egypt by reason of the merit of four acts. They did not change their names, they did not change their language, they did not disclose their secrets and they did not break loose in unchastity."
How is this source connected to the sin of the Israelites with the Moabite women? How are the merits of the Israelites in Egypt connected to their sins on the plains of Moav? According to our Sages, the Israelites merited being redeemed from Egyptian slavery for four reasons. The first two merits of the people clearly deal with guarding their Jewish identity. They did not adopt gentile Egyptian names but kept to their unique Hebrew appellations. Moshe and Yaakov did not give way to Marc and Jack. In addition, they did not begin to speak the language of their host country, but continued speaking Hebrew amongst themselves. The third merit, not revealing secrets, relates to national solidarity and loyalty to one's people. They did not endanger their fellow Israelites by revealing dangerous information. What of the fourth merit, sexual chastity? How is it connected to the previous three, to the idea of Jewish identity and solidarity? The placement of this source of our Sages with the sin of harlotry with the daughters of Moav, provides us with our answer. The sin with the women of Moav demonstrates the link between unchastity and assimilation, or if you will, between chastity and Jewish identity. Intermingling with the Moabite women immediately triggered a process of assimilation, of a loss of Jewish identity. Jewish chastity guarded against the Israelites' assimilation into Egyptian culture and promised their eventual salvation. As they approach the borders of the promised land, they once again face a similar threat of intermarrying and assimilating into the culture of the indigenous population. In contrast to the experience in Egypt, the encounter with the Moabites is an abysmal failure. "I found Israel [as pleasing] as grapes in the wilderness ... but when they came to 'Ba'al-Pe'or' they turned aside to shamefulness" (Hosea 9:10). The sin of the Israelites with the women of Moav remains a warning for future generations of the terrible consequences of intermarriage.