VALUES PUT TO THE TEST

  • Rav Shimon Klein

Introduction

 

And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself to Baal-Peor, and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. And the Lord said to Moshe, “Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them up before the Lord against the sun, that the burning anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel.” And Moshe said to the judges of Israel, “Slay every one his men that have attached themselves to Baal-Peor.” And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brethren the Midyanite woman in the sight of Moshe, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. (Bamidbar 25:1-6)

 

            These verses recount a difficult episode. It begins with harlotry with the daughters of Moav, continues with bowing down to their gods, until in the end a member of Israel brings the Midyanite woman into the camp, bringing her to his brothers for harlotry in the plain view of Moshe and the entire congregation of Israel, who are weeping at the door of the Tent of Meeting.

 

This story raises many questions. What is the background of such deviant conduct? What guided Moshe in his response? What drove Pinchas to do what he did? A long list of values where shattered in this event. How can the camp be rehabilitated after such a traumatic experience?

 

            In this study, we shall focus on an analysis of the event and the responses of Moshe and Pinchas to it, the latter serving as a window to the many questions that were raised. Taking a broader look, we shall consider a number of events that take place in the wake of this story and identify the methods that are proposed for coping with what had happened.

 

            Another side of the affair is described in the account of the war against Midyan, which opens with the words: "Execute the vengeance of the children of Israel from the Midyanites; afterwards you shall be gathered to your people" (Bamidbar 31:2). God instructs Moshe to take revenge against Midyan, saying to him, as it were: You cannot leave this world before closing the circle. Scripture uses fifty-four verses to describe in great detail the war against Midyan and the division of the spoils in its aftermath. The nation once again fights against those who caused them to stumble in such a disgraceful manner, and this time it enjoys victory and also divides up the spoils of war. This is a sort of "rehabilitative experience" – "Israel against Midyan."

 

And Israel Abode in Shittim

 

"And Israel abode in Shittim" - the subject of this sentence is Israel, a name that expresses both mission and identity. The use of the term "Israel" in the singular, rather than another possible term, "the children of Israel" in the plural, sets the entity and the collective as the subject.[1] The "abiding" described here is a kind of settling in, which is liable to give rise to internal processes. During this period, their lives are still not ready to accommodate this internal stance,[2] and its consequences in this chapter are likely to be difficult. All this takes place in the first, inner and essential circle. In the outer circle, Scripture describes the consequences – in the form of harlotry with the daughters of Moav.[3]

 

"And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav" – The people begin to fornicate with the Moavite women. In contrast to "Israel," which expresses mission and identity, "the people" embodies the dimension of natural life. "And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods" – the daughters of Moav invite them to eat of sacrifices offered to their gods, and in the wake of this invitation, they come to bow down to their gods. "And Israel joined himself to Baal-Peor" – a third step, joining to Baal-Peor. Its service involves defecation, a removal of barriers that indicates a lack of distinction between interior and exterior. "And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" – God responds with fury directed against Israel, for the desecration of its identity as "Israel." All references made thus far to Israel and the people relate to them in the singular, intimating that what happened did not happen at the edge of the camp, but at its heart, in its collective existence, in its leadership, and perhaps in a kind of ideology that hovered in the air.

 

"And the Lord said to Moshe, Take all the chiefs of the people" - The fall was not at the edge of the camp, and thus the response relates to "the chiefs of the people." This is a demanding response, and not at all self-evident. These chiefs may be related to as the organizers of the event, or else as the heads of the people in general. The ambiguity invites both possibilities. "And hang them up before the Lord against the sun" – This type of hanging is mentioned in another Biblical story, where the Gibeonites hang seven of Shaul's sons. There the reference is to death by hanging, in the course of which they are put on display, "that the people may hear and fear."[4] Hanging against the sun should be construed as punishment administered in broad daylight, a clarification that leaves no doubts regarding God's position and the position of Moshe with respect to what happened.[5]

 

"That the burning anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel" - The wrath of the Lord is described in the third person, as a type of objective reality that had already been initiated and now requires an action in order to rein it in. As stated, the response involves a strike at the chiefs, at those who were responsible, rather than at the man on the street, and certainly not at those at the edge of the camp.

 

What kind of operation is this? It is hard not to notice that Moshe is called to an action that in its essence is not in the realm of the law. "The chiefs of the people" is a position of responsibility, but it is still a long road from there to their execution. Moreover, death by hanging, hoka'a, is not mentioned in any legal passage in the Torah. On the contrary, it is mentioned in the passage dealing with the Gibeonites, which is quite far from the principles of law.[6] In addition, God's burning anger hovers over the camp, it is liable to create panic, and it shoves aside the law, which demands both moderation and precision.[7]

 

And what is Moshe's response? "And Moshe said to the judges of Israel, ‘Slay everyone his men that have attached themselves to Baal-Peor.’" Moshe issues a concrete order to the judges of Israel to slay "every man his men." According to the simple explanation, the reference is to the captains of thousands, hundreds, and tens, who must establish who among the men in their charge attached themselves to Baal-Peor and then kill them. In contrast to God's command to Moshe, "Take all the chiefs of the people," Moshe casts the job on "the judges of Israel." In contrast to God, who calls for a most severe measure, pointing to those responsible, "the chiefs of the people," Moshe points to those who actually sinned, those "that have attached themselves to Baal-Peor." In contrast to God's wrath that appears in the wake of a chain of failures and sins, Moshe focuses on those that have attached themselves to Baal-Peor. He formulates his order with the term hariga, slaying, which is used in connection with judicial punishment (e.g., Devarim 13:10).

Did Moshe transgress God's command? What underlies this discrepancy between God's words and the way that Moshe carried them out?

 

This question touches upon a broad question: To what extent is God's word concrete instruction that requires absolute compliance? Is it, alternatively, a conceptual position, which points to the essence but expects the leader to translate it in some way that it can be used in the real world? We incline toward the second understanding.[8] Thus the change introduced by Moshe is not cause for Divine anger, but rather a matter that must be studied so that we can understand its meaning. God places great responsibility upon Moshe, telling him that the fall is not at the fringes of the camp; the address for punishment is the chiefs of the people. The people follow their leaders; they are their chiefs for the good and for the bad. These are all statements of God that go beyond the principle of law, and there is more than one way to implement them.

 

Moshe takes several steps backward, and builds his solution on different fundamental assumptions. He follows the law. "The judges of Israel" will examine the facts brought before them, and he points to the actual sinners, and not to their operators.
 

In practice, before the judges of Israel do anything, another "front" opens: "And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought to his brethren the Midyanite woman in the sight of Moshe and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting." This is an unexpected development that overwhelms the foundations of the event. A member of the children of Israel comes and brings a Midyanite woman to his brethren. It stands to reason that he holds her with his hands, and brings her to his brothers. The context is harlotry with the daughters of Moav and now he offers his brothers "the Midyanite," who is introduced with a definite article owing to her importance. All this, while exposed to three circles: the eyes of Moshe, the eyes of all the congregation of the children of Israel, as they are weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting.[9] This incident is an act of display. It is loaded, makes a statement, and perhaps expounds an ideology.

 

Values That Were Desecrated

 

What caused these values ​​to be abandoned? What underlies the many broken pieces? We wish to argue that more than broken pieces, what we are dealing with here is exposure, a type of lifting of a veil from a world that has not yet been built. The many descriptions at the beginning of the chapter point not to chance, nor to the fringes of the camp. They attest to an encounter that failed due to lack of maturity. Scripture will later present additional aspects of this episode in terms of the "culture attack" perpetrated by Bil'am the son of Beor, who sends the daughters of Moav and the daughters of Midyan to Israel at a time that they still lacked the tools to cope with them. This account retroactively explains the structure of the chapters, in the course of which the king of Moav sends for Bil'am, trying to harness him to his war against Israel. His great plan did not succeed, but at the same time a secondary plan went forth, on the advice to seduce Israel to engage in prostitution and serve other gods, and these are the casualties.

 

In fact, this episode points to exposure to temptations that led to a crash. Now is the time to establish a conceptual system that will allow for coping with such situations. If we wish to define them more precisely, there has been a desecration of the values that underlie the bulk of the book of Bamidbar – the sanctity of Israel, the sanctity of the camp, the distinction between the camp of Israel and the other nations. It turns out now that in the moment of truth, all these melt away completely, and this being the case, what is necessary now is the establishment of a stable foundation, a conceptual system that will keep these values standing.[10]

 

An answer is given in three circles: In the first – the step taken by Pinchas the son of Elazar; in the second – a series of matters with which the people are commanded in the aftermath of the plague; and in the third – in the war initiated by Israel against Midyan, a type of "rehabilitative experience" for the first traumatic encounter.

 

Let us open with the step taken by Pinchas:

 

First Response – Pinchas

 

And when Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel and the woman through her tent. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel; and those that died in the plague were twenty four thousand. (Bamidbar 25:7-9)

 

            As stated, God invited Moshe to execute an action that is outside the principles of law. Moshe did not take up the gauntlet. Rather the one who does so is Pinchas, who reads the map, sizes up the crisis, and responds – he stops the plague and also achieves atonement for the children of Israel.[11]

 

Several comments regarding the step taken by Pinchas: Scripture dedicates an entire verse to describe the chain of preliminary actions: "And when Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a spear in his hand." The verse opens with seeing, but it is not focused. It is as if Scripture were testifying about its understanding of the nature of the event. On the most fundamental level, Pinchas sees what Zimri did with the Midyanite woman and the great desecration of a series of sanctified values that were caused by his action. It stands to reason that he also saw Moshe's response, the order that he gave to the judges of Israel, which no longer provides an answer. The second account of Pinchas' action – "he rose up from among the congregation" – depicts him as the community's representative. His third step: "And he took a spear in his hand" – relates to an action that will described in the next verse. Scripture could have skipped this verse and begun the account of his action in the next verse. In that way, it would have painted a picture of zealotry the focus of which is practicality, which does not really understand and is certainly not attentive to what is happening. Opening with seeing, followed by standing, and after that with taking a spear establishes open-eyed foundations, the correct reading of reality, inner awakening with intentional standing – a regrouping of forces and doing what is necessary.

 

"And he went after the man of Israel into the tent,[12] and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her tent" - the two managed to get into the tent, and Pinchas kills them. Their killing is given an explanatory description – "the man of Israel" is killed because of his desecrated identity; and "the woman through her tent" – the tent is ascribed to the woman, since she is in it, as if she were hosting those who came to it.[13] "So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel" – the same verse that describes the killing of the two people also describes the staying of the plague, gives Pinchas' action a mantle of responsibility.[14] This mantle finds expression in God's words about him: "Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon the priest, has turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was zealous for My sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say, Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace; and he shall have it, and his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood" (Bamidbar 25:11-12). Pinchas is traced back to Elazar and to Aharon, and it is as if Scripture were ascribing the deed as the deed of Aharon. His action could have been interpreted as an act of zealotry that destroys the world and distances peace, but here is it given the meaning of responsibility, peace, and atonement.

 

Lessons Learned From This Episode

 

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Vex the Midyanites and smite them, for they vex you with their wiles, with which they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Kozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midyan, their sister, who was slain in the day of the plague in the affair of Peor. (Bamidbar 25:16-18)

 

The first command is a distant, vexing stance toward those who hurt Israel, alongside of which there is a practical command – "and smite them." Fundamentally, this is an instance of measure for measure. They vexed you, beguiling you in the matter of Peor and in the planned campaign orchestrated by Kozbi the daughter of the chief of Midyan. And therefore you shall vex them. This is a fundamental position, which allows for no room for forgiveness.[15]

 

Another step – a command regarding a census:

 

And it came to pass after the plague, that the Lord spoke to Moshe and to Elazar the son of Aharon the priest, saying: Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel. And Moshe and Elazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moav by the Jordan near Jericho, saying: Take the sum of the people, from twenty years old and upward; as the Lord commanded Moshe and the children of Israel, who went forth out of the land of Egypt. (Bamidbar 26:1-51)

 

Following the plague, Moshe is commanded to take the sum - literally, to raise the heads - of all the congregation of Israel. Raising heads means creating importance. This importance is of great significance in the aftermath of the great falls that they had suffered at that time.

 

Another central function played by this count lies in the reference to various circles of identification, which turned the event into a kind of organization of the camp. Under the heading of the difficult event in the course of which there was a blurring of boundaries, each person is once again assigned to his tribe, family, and father's house. Along with the similarity between the first and second counts, there are also differences: in contrast to the context of the first census – their dwelling in the wilderness with its spiritual ramifications, now the context is the crisis and plague, and alongside it their stay in the plains of Moav on the banks of the Jordan River across from Jericho, as they are about to enter the land of Israel. On the one hand, this is a kind of rehabilitation, but on the other hand, it is preparation for entering the land of Israel. In contrast to their assignation to four circles, which terminate with their personal assignation, to which is joined their personal status as those who go out in war ("Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by the number of names, every male by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go out to war in Israel" [Bamidbar 1:2-3]),[16] here their personal status is mentioned first, before the other circles: "Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers' house, all that are able to go to war in Israel." The family as well becomes exceedingly significant; rather than ignoring the names of the families as in the first count, here the families stand in the center, with their names and their importance.[17] In contrast to the tribal princes who stand over those who are counted and give them importance, here they are absent, and the importance lies in those who are counted and their families themselves. All this comes in the wake of the plague, as a kind of empowerment and bestowal of importance, especially that given to each individual as a person and to the family.

 

To These the Land Shall be Divided

 

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance to the number of names. To the more numerous you shall give the more inheritance, and to the fewer you shall give the less inheritance; to everyone shall his inheritance be given according to those that were numbered of him. Nevertheless, the land shall be divided by lot; according to the name of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot shall their inheritance be divided between many and few. (Bamidbar 26:52-56)

 

Thus far, the individuals and the families were empowered. Now Scripture goes a step further and connects them to inheritance. "To these the land shall be divided for an inheritance" – to those counted previously the land shall be divided. "To the number of names" – according to the simple understanding, this refers to the names of the families, as they were counted this time. Affiliation to the land bestows upon them importance not only in personal and temporary terms, but as heirs of an inheritance which will bear their names for generations. What is more, inclusion of lots - "Nevertheless the land shall be divided by lot" - adds the dimension of their belonging to the land, not only in terms of human choice, but also with heavenly agreement to this affiliation. The tribes are assigned to their places by lot, because the land belongs to God.

 

So much for the initial handling of the great crisis that plagued Israel while they abided in Shittim. We tried to clarify what happened there, to understand the background, and to take a step toward the response – the rehabilitation and the empowerment. Like the enormity of the crisis, so the enormity of the puzzle that has not yet been addressed – in the chain of events until the war against Midyan and in the special war depicted in chapter 31, to which we shall dedicated our study of Parashat Mattot.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 

 



[1] This term is not self-evident. In the book of Vayikra it does not appear at all, and in the book of Bamidbar this identity solidifies over the course of the book. In the first half, it is mentioned only once, when Moshe speaks with his father-in-law: "And Moshe said to Chovav, the son of Reuel, the Midyanite, Moshe's father-in-law, ‘We are journeying to the place of which the Lord said, I will give it to you; come you with us, and we will do you good: for the Lord has spoken good concerning Israel’” (Bemidbar 10:29). In the fortieth year, it first appears in places where it stands in contrast to other peoples, or in the context of Moshe's wars on the east bank of the Jordan (ibid. 21:1-3, 7, 21, and elsewhere). Later in the book, it takes shape, and its incipient appearance in our parasha attests to this. It should further be noted that in the book of Devarim, this consciousness reaches maturity, and it accompanies the various parashot in a most dominant fashion.

[2] Sitting and abiding in Scripture are often followed by crisis. This fact is described in the following midrash: "R. Yochanan said: Wherever it says: 'He abided, he dwelled' (vayeshev), it is a term of distress, as it is stated: 'And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav'; 'And Yaakov dwelt in the land in which his father had sojourned… And Yosef brought to his father their evil report' (Bereishit 37:1-2); and it is stated: 'And Israel dwelled in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen… And the time drew near for Israel to die' (Bereishit 47:27-29); 'And Yehuda and Israel dwelt in safety, every man under his vine and under his fig tree (I Melakhim 5:5)… And the Lord stirred up an adversary to Shelomo, Hadad the Edomite; he was of the king's seed in Edom' (ibid. 11:14)" (Sanhedrin 106a). This is a long list of depictions of "dwelling" with destruction in their wake. It seems that this should be understood as follows: "Dwelling" invites a sense of self; rather than directing himself toward thoughts and ideals outside the person, "dwelling" leads a person to dwell on his own experiences. And this is what leads to calamity. On the other hand, there are situations in which this leads to redemption. For example, in the section dealing with the king: "When you are come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall dwell in it, and shall say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are about me’" (Devarim 17:14). We have here four stages of a historical process: coming to the land (physical entry), possessing it (legal possession), dwelling in it (settling in), and asking for a king (developed stage of consciousness).

[3] After the fact, Scripture mentions another factor – Bil'am's advice. The explicit account is found after the capture of the women in the war against Midyan: "And Moshe was angry with the officers of the host, the captains over thousands, and captains over hudndreds, who came from the battle, and Moshe said to them, ‘Have you saved all the women alive? Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Bil'am, to revolt against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord’" (Bamidbar 31:14-18). The fact that this element is ingored in our parasha invites us to focus on the internal position of the people, instead of blaming the failue on external influences.

[4] Various midrashim connect the two events. For example: "From where do we know that hoka'a means hanging? From the verse: 'And we will hang them up to the Lord in Givat–Shaul whom the Lord did choose'” (II Shemuel 21:6) (Sanhedrin 34b).

[5] Assigning the chiefs of the people to the group of those to be punished is mentioned in several midrashim: "'Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them up' – R. Yuden said: He hanged the chiefs of the people who did not object to the people who were distinguished among them as the sun" (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Balak 28, and elsewhere). On the other hand, R. Nechemia maintains that the chiefs of the people are the judges: "Rav Nechemya said: He did not hang them up, but rather the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: Set them as heads of the Sanhedrin, and have them judge anyone who went to Peor…" It is difficult to understand that the chiefs of the people served as judges: 1. The subject of this verse (4) is the chiefs of the people, and the simple understanding is that "hang them up" refers to them. It is difficult to say that these words refer to sinners who are not mentioned in the verse. 2. If the words "hang them up" refer to the sinners, there is a difficulty, for previously they had been referred to in the singular, and not in the plural. ("And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began… and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel" – all the descriptive terms and verbs are in the singular.) 3. Identifying "the chiefs of the people" with "the judges of Israel" is difficult. 4. If Moshe carried out God's command exactly as it had been given, it is not clear why God's promise, "that the burning anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel," was not fulfilled through him, but rather through Pinchas.

[6] The deviation from legal procedure manifests itself in handing over people due to their origins, rather than their actions; punishing children for the sins of their fathers; and delaying burial for an extended period of time.  

[7] In the continuation, an account is given of a plague, which claimed twenty-four thousand lives, and which stopped the moment that Pinchas took action. This indicates the urgency of Moshe's action, for as long as he did not do what had to be done, God's wrath continued to claim victims.  

[8] For a detailed discussion of this point, see our studies on the book of Shemot Parashat Bo and Parashat Beshalach.

[9] The Tent of Meeting is not mentioned directly, but only through the consciousness of Moshe and the children of Israel, who are bewildered and weeping. This puts the focus on the people, rather than on the Tent of Meeting itself.

[10] The midrash imagines a dialogue between Zimri and Moshe: "He grabbed her [the Midyanite woman] by the hair, and brought her to Moshe, and said to him: Son of Amram, is she permitted or is she forbidden? He answered: She is forbidden to you. Zimri said to him: And the woman whom you took, is she a Midyanite? Immediately, Moshe's hands became powerless…" (Bamidbar Rabba, Parashat Balak 20). This midrash points to confusion and to the fundamental inability to distinguish between between pure and impure.

[11] There is a point of similarity: God's instruction had been directed towards the chiefs of the people, and Pinchas takes action against the person who represented and perhaps even led the ideology in its purity. He fearlessly speaks out before Moshe, the congregation, and the Tent of Meeting. Along with the similarity, there is also a difference – in fact the chiefs of the people are not affected, while twenty-four thousand people die in the plague.

[12] The commentators understand kuba as a tent or dome. In Chazal we find: "There is in heaven a kind of chamber (kuba)from which the rain issues" (Taanit 8b, Menachot 31). Chazal often refer to "a kuba of prostitutes," in the sense of brothel (Avoda Zara 18a; Midrash Tanchuma Bereishit 42:3; and elsewhere).

[13] Some commentators understood this as a reference to the woman's private parts. This too would indicate an interpretation of her killing, pointing to her lack of modesty.

[14] Pinchas stops the plague after 24,000 people have already died. This means that at the time he took action, the people were already deep in the midst of the plague. This joins with the words "And Pinchas saw" which underlie his decision to take action, and provide a mantle of responsibility to his deed.

[15] This position is not limited in time, and the Sages in the Midrash saw it as a command to distance themselves from them for all generatins. Midrash Tanchuma: "'Vex the Midyanites.' Even though the Torah says: 'When you come near to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace to it' (Devarim 20:10), but these 'You shall not seek their peace' (Devarim 23:7). Another explanation: 'Vex the Midyanites.' Since I wrote: 'When you shall besiege a city, you shall not destroy its trees' (Devarim 20:19), to these you shall not act in this manner, but rather you shall ruin their trees" (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Pinchas 5).

[16] Four circles: "the congregation of the children of Israel" - the collective; "their families" – each tribe is comprised of several families; "their fathers' house – the more nuclear family;  "by the number of names, every male by their polls" - the single individual.

[17] To illustrate the gap with respect to affiliation and importance: The tribe of Reuven is described in the first census as follows: "And the children of Reuven, Israel's oldest son, their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, according to the number of names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war" (Bamidbar 1:20). Whereas the second census: "Reuven, the eldest son of Israel: the children of Reuven; Chanokh, the family of the Chanokhi; of Pallu, the family of the Pallu'i" – opens by addressing Reuven in an important manner and stating his name. Unlike the first count where it is only Reuven's sons who are referred to as sons of the firstborn, in the second count the reference to Reuven's being the firstborn is made with respect to Reuven himself.