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This week, we finish a terrible story that began last week, in Parshat Balak. Israel commits idolatry by worshipping Moabite gods, Ba’al Pe’or, which seriously provoked God’s anger. Ultimately, Pinchas, in an act of zealotry for God, saved the day… but not before thousands of Israelites were killed in God’s plague.
But something about this seems strange. Because, yes, we’ve seen the people sin plenty of times in the book of Numbers, but they had finally turned things around in their relationship with God! Over the past few parshas, the 2nd generation of Israelites in the desert had done what their parents couldn’t, they finally ceded control to God and trusted Him completely. In fact, in the story right before this, in Parshat Balak, the nation of Israel was held up as the paradigm of a Godly people! And now, idolatry?? What happened? How did the people fail so quickly?
Join us as we explore the perplexing story of Ba’al Peor, this week on the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I’m Imu Shalev, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment.
So let’s take a look at what happened in the sin of Ba’al Pe’or. First, וַיָּחֶל הָעָם, לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב - Israel began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav. וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן - these women called Israel to sacrifice to their gods. And then, וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן. and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods.
So this is interesting. Promiscuity leading to idolatry. And then, sacrifice. And, some sort of idolatrous feast. Does this...remind us of anything? Was there another time when the people committed idolatry through worship and sacrificial offerings? And where they were sexually promiscuous? And, they also ate an idolatrous feast?
This all seems to recall the sin of the Golden Calf! After the people of Israel built the calf, וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת, וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים - they sacrificed burnt offerings, and peace offerings. וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ - and they sat down to eat and drink, and then, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק - they rose לצחק. The Torah often uses the term לצחק to mean sexual activity. Rashi brings an example - when Joseph was working for Potiphar in Egypt, Potiphar’s wife tried to frame Joseph… she said: רְאוּ הֵבִיא לָנוּ אִישׁ עִבְרִי, לְצַחֶק בָּנוּ - look, they brought us a Hebrew man to be מצחק with us… בָּא אֵלַי לִשְׁכַּב עִמִּי - he came to lie with me. So, לצחק seems to mean some sort of sexual promiscuity. Just like Ba’al Peor.
Both stories of idolatry seem to involve a worship, sacrifice, a feast - and, the fundamental link between idolatry and sexual promiscuity. But that’s not all - there’s one more fascinating parallel. God was incredibly upset with the nation after the sin of the Golden Calf, and he gives them some new laws - so that something like it could never happen again.
God says: Don’t forge a covenant with other nations, וְזָנוּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם - because you’ll stray after their gods. וְקָרָא לְךָ - and the people will call you, וְאָכַלְתָּ מִזִּבְחוֹ - and you’ll eat of their offerings. But it won’t end there. וְלָקַחְתָּ מִבְּנֹתָיו, לְבָנֶיךָ - you’ll take of their daughters for your sons, וְזָנוּ בְנֹתָיו, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן - and their daughters will stray after their gods, וְהִזְנוּ אֶת-בָּנֶיךָ, אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן - and they’ll pull your sons astray to their gods.
Amazingly, the sin of Baal Pe’or is exactly what God was warning against after the Egel! And even look at the words in the Ba’al Pe’or story - לִזְנוֹת, בְּנוֹת, וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם, and וַיֹּאכַל הָעָם. Not only are the two sins related - the Egel seems to be warning against Ba’al Pe’or. There is clearly some sort of connection between these stories. Why does the Torah link Ba’al Pe’or with the Golden Calf?
We think that the key to understanding their connection lies in one critical, subtle difference between the two stories. At the Golden Calf, idolatry led to promiscuity; but at Baal Pe’or, promiscuity led to idolatry. The order is reversed. And that difference is critically important. Often, when verses parallel one another, there will be something you expect to line up perfectly, and the pieces just don’t fit together. For instance, in a chiasm, you have your A pasuk and your A’, B, B’, C, and instead of C’, you get D’. And your chiasm looks like this. This is called an inverted pair. Rabbi Fohrman argues that in situations like this, when something is listed twice in Torah, but listed in backwards order from one another, the Torah is trying to tell us that these two things that you might think are different, they’re actually the same thing. It isn’t this, it’s this. Now our case isn’t a chiasm, but we would expect these two events, which are both about straying from God and worshipping a foreign deity, and which share many of the same elements, to line up perfectly. Perhaps, the Torah is telling us that they do. Instead of idolatry leading to promiscuity, or promiscuity leading to idolatry, the Torah is telling us that promiscuity and idolatry are both fundamentally expressions of the same thing. But what would that mean?
At its core, sexual activity is a tool - to build a real, deep, loving relationship. If I choose to be involved in sexual activity for the sake of physical pleasure above all else, I’m essentially taking that tool, that was once used to build a relationship, and using it not for love, but for momentary pleasure. And with that, I destroy the entire construct of intimacy. Sexual activity becomes a tool for pleasure and feeling, not love and depth.
And now, idolatry. What is at the core of idolatry? An idolater takes worship - the very thing used to build a deep, loving, relationship with God - and uses it outside the context of a real relationship with Him. As Rabbi Fohrman explains in a video linked below, when it comes to polytheistic idolatry, worship is not about creating a deep relationship… it’s about winning the gods over, to convince them to give you what you want. It’s the opposite of creating a relationship! With idolatry, worship is just a tool for bribery and selfishness.
So promiscuity is taking sexual activity, which is meant to be a tool for a deep and loving relationship, and using it for selfish, superficial pleasure. And idolatry is about taking worship, also a tool for a deep and loving relationship - with God - and making the rituals meaningless, for selfish purposes, to curry favor gods. These are both ways of willingly destroying - or, at least, severely depreciating - the very concept of intimacy. And at the heart of both of these things is not just selfishness - it’s a lie we tell ourselves. The idolater, the adulterer, they deceive themselves into thinking that they can have our cake and eat it too. Sure, they’ll also use those tools to build intimate relationships, they’re not denying that. But why can’t they also separate them and just feel pleasure? Because when you remove the relationship part, you really do cheapen those tools... and you cheapen the concept of intimacy itself.
And that idea - of sexual promiscuity and idolatry being one and the same - perhaps explains something a bit odd. The plague ends when Pinchas takes a spear and impales two people involved in promiscuity. But if the sin of Baal Peor was the idolatry, why would stopping the sexual activity end the plague? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Pinchas to publically impale someone worshipping Ba’al Pe’or? But it’s the very same answer - the promiscuity and idolatry are two expressions of the same thing. Pinchas kills two people literally while they’re misusing and devaluing the concept of sexual intimacy. Insodoing, he redeems intimacy, and preserves the potential for sexual intimacy be used in a sacred relationship.
Perhaps that’s what the Torah wants us to learn from the parallels between the Golden Calf and Ba’al Pe’or. Regardless of which comes first, promiscuity or idolatry, one who engages in either shows a propensity to take a tool that’s meant to create intimacy in a relationship and misuse it. Devalue it. So, the two really do go hand in hand. If someone violates one of them, violation of the other could easily be right around the corner.
And when God sees Pinchas’ act, He says, you, Pinchas, you get it. Intimacy within Israel has been betrayed - with God, and within the people. When Pinchas stands up to the promiscuity of a prince of the people, he’s making a statement as a representative of Israel, and saying that we do not stand for those who betray our sacred relationships. Through this intensely violent act, he somehow makes peace. So, look at how God rewards him: הִנְנִי נֹתֵן לוֹ אֶת-בְּרִיתִי, שָׁלוֹם - I give him the covenant of Peace. In fact, what do we call it when intimacy between a married couple is preserved, when the relationship is solid and loving? Shalom Bayit - a peaceful home. God gives Pinchas the covenant of peace --- the kind of peace that is the symbol of a true, deep, intimate relationship.
And isn’t it interesting that the sins of the Egel and Baal Pe’or each happen right after a major turning point in the nation’s relationship with God? The Egel happened after revelation at Sinai; Baal Pe’or after the new generation of Israel finally recognizes and commits to God. Maybe they’re there to teach us something profound. At first, Israel’s struggle was to recognize and trust God. But once they do, it’s not over. They have a new struggle: Can they maintain that relationship, keep it sacred, intimate?
And that’s a struggle that we can relate to. We’re all in relationships with loved ones - with family, partners, friends - and God. How often do we take them for granted? We assume that once we’ve established the relationship, we’ve done the work… at that point, it’ll take care of itself. But the stories of Egel and Baal Pe’or teach us the danger of that mindset. Intimacy and commitment can become dry - with God, and with each other. In these stories, the Torah teaches us to take the tools of intimacy and relationship-building and keep them sacred. Don’t misuse these tools by taking them outside the context of a relationship. Realize their potential, so that they’ll be able to build our relationships stronger and stronger.
Join us next week on the Parsha Experiment.
1. The Parsha Experiment - Bereishit: Is The Torah One Big Story?
2. The Parsha Experiment - Noach: The Failure of Humanity
3. The Parsha Experiment - Lech Lecha: Was Abraham The First Wandering Jew?
4. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeira: the Power of Abraham's Influence
5. The Parsha Experiment - Chayei Sarah: Find Me A Find, Catch Me A Catch!
6. The Parsha Experiment - Toldot: All's Well That Ends Well
7. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeitzei: To Deceive Or Not To Deceive, That Is The Question
8. The Parsha Experiment - Vayishlach: Difficult Conversations
9. The Parsha Experiment - Vayeishev: Harlots & Coats & Goats, Oh My!
10. The Parsha Experiment - Miketz: Hello From The Other Side
11. The Parsha Experiment - Vayigash: A Speech That Turns The Tide
12. The Parsha Experiment - Vayechi: We Are Family - Culmination of Abrahamic Legacy
13. The Parsha Experiment - Shmot - Every Saga Has A Beginning: Meeting Moses
14. The Parsha Experiment - Va'era: The Exodus and Babe Ruth
15. The Parsha Experiment - Bo: The Flight of the Firstborn Nation
16. The Parsha Experiment - Beshalach: Are We An Ungrateful Nation?
17. The Parsha Experiment - Yitro: Does God Care About ME?
18. The Parsha Experiment - Mishpatim: Can Laws Be Meaningful?
19. The Parsha Experiment - Terumah: Is God Talking To Me Through The Laws of the Mishkan?
20. The Parsha Experiment - Tetzaveh: The Hidden Secrets In The Walls Of The Mishkan
21. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tisa: Will God Always Forgive Me?
22. The Parsha Experiment - Vayakhel: How Can I Take A Step Towards God?
23. The Parsha Experiment - Pekudei: God Choosing Man, Man Choosing God
24. The Parsha Experiment - Vayikra: How To Read the Book of Vayikra
25. The Parsha Experiment - Shemini: Is There Meaning Behind The Laws of Kashrut?
26. The Parsha Experiment - Tzav: How Can I Confront Sacrifices?
27. The Parsha Experiment - Tazria: What do Tumah and Tahara Mean Today? Part I
28. The Parsha Experiment - Metzora: What Do Tumah And Tahara Mean Today? Part II
29. The Parsha Experiment - Kedoshim: How Can We Achieve Holiness?
30. The Parsha Experiment - Emor: Holiness In Space and Time
31. The Parsha Experiment - Behar: A Spiritual Economy
32. The Parsha Experiment - Bechukotai: The Epic Conclusion To Leviticus
33. The Parsha Experiment - Bamidbar: How Can We Transmit God's Values?
34. The Parsha Experiment - Naso: Adding Godliness To Our Lives
35. The Parsha Experiment - Beha'alotecha: Can I Be Vulnerable With God?
36. The Parsha Experiment - Shelach: How Can I Trust God When I Don't See Him?
37. The Parsha Experiment - Korach: Rejecting Israel's Leaders
38. The Parsha Experiment - Chukat: A Turning Point In Israel's Relationship With God
39. The Parsha Experiment - Balak: What Is Israel's National Mission?
40. The Parsha Experiment - Pinchas: Intimacy and Holiness
41. The Parsha Experiment - Matot-Masei: Israel's Psychological Journey
42. The Parsha Experiment - Devarim: Finding Inspiration From Our Past
43. The Parsha Experiment - Va'etchanan: Building An Intimate Relationship With God
44. The Parsha Experiment - Eikev: Appreciating Our Creators
45. The Parsha Experiment - Re'eh: Why Would Anyone Want to Worship Idols?
46. The Parsha Experiment - Shoftim: Is This Just A Boring Parsha?
47. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Teitzei: Is There Spiritual Guidance Within Our Legal System?
48. The Parsha Experiment - Ki Tavo: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses
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