By April Akiva, M.A.J.E.
As Parashat Pinchas opens we learn of Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, who is granted a pact of priesthood for all time, “because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites (Numbers 25:13).” After forty years in the desert, sins with the golden calf, and loads of complaints, what have those Israelites done now?! What role does Pinchas play in managing yet another crisis of faithfulness?
At the end of Parashat Balak, Balaam fails to destroy the Israelites with curses, but the children of Israel are still able to bring calamity upon themselves with their deeds as they “began to go astray after the daughters of Moab (Numbers 25:1).”
We learn from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 106a)
Balaam advised Balak to ensnare the children of Israel with them. He said to him: ” and they are very partial to linen. Come, and I will advise you what to do. Erect for them tents enclosed by hangings, and place in them harlots, old women without, young women within, to sell them linen garments. So he erected curtained tents from the snowy mountain (Hermon) as far as Beth ha-Yeshimoth, and placed harlots in them — old women on the outside, young women within. And when an Israelite ate, drank, and was merry, and issued forth for a stroll in the market place, the old woman would say to him, ‘Do you desire linen garments?” The old woman offered it at its current value, but the young one for less. This happened two or three times. After that she would say to him, “You are now like one of the family; sit down and choose for yourself.” Gourds of Ammonite wine lay near her, and at that time Ammonite and heathen wine had not yet been forbidden. Said she to him: “Would you like to drink a glass of wine?” Having drunk, his passion was inflamed and he exclaimed to her, “Yield to me!” Thereupon she brought forth an idol from her bosom and said to him, “Worship this.”
You think a Jewish man engaging in sexual activities with a forbidden woman is bad? The scene only gets worse. We learn that through the harlot’s seduction, the Israelite man takes the idol Peor and defecates. As in accordance with Baal Peor worship customs, the Israelite man then worships his own excrement (I promise you, this is in the Torah. I’m not making it up for the shock-value).
From these sins of idolatry, a plague ensues among the Israelite community, killing 24,000 people. This plague continues until it is stopped by the shocking action of Pinchas:
Just then one of the Israelites 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. When Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, saw this, he left the assembly and, taking a spear in his hand, he followed the Israelite into the chamber and stabbed both of them, the Israelite and the woman, through the belly. Then the plague against the Israelites was checked. (Numbers 25:6-8)
It is through this action, murder really, that Pinchas rises to priesthood. Pinchas recognized those turning their backs on God and their commitments and took drastic measures. The question of whether or not Pinchas’ actions were justified is a discussion for its own (we will save this for another time).
I wish I could say that harlotry ceased to exist after the story of Pinchas. The reality is that promiscuity and other acts leading to God’s defilement continued throughout the biblical period and into present times. Today our society is plagued by temptations, acts, and industries that turn our backs on Torah and the covenantal relationship we have with God. Sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, alcoholism, and infidelity are only a few examples that lead to “idolatry.”
These evils cause individuals to slowly drift down a spiritual spiral of degradation and Godlessness. They slowly go from a pure and light soul to one of darkness and confusion. Our individual inabilities to control our actions eventually make detrimental stabs into the life of our kehilah kedoshah, our holy community.
Are these modern elements of temptation and moral degradation really necessary in our world? Is it worth destroying our relationships with God, ourselves, and our loved ones?
Questions to Consider:
· What are our “gateways” that lead us to stray from our sacred relationships with God?
· In what ways are we held accountable for our sins? Are we truly punished in some divine way for our wrongdoings?
· Should we be more like Pinchas, taking drastic measures to punish those sinners who poison or plague our community and its relationship with God? If not by murderous retribution, what might these measures look like?