Already at the end of last week’s parsha, Parshat Chukat, Bnai Yisrael have arrived at their final destination, ערבות מואב עבר לירדן יריחו, before they enter Eretz Yisrael. Balak, King of Moav, turns to Bilaam, Prophet of Midyan, to curse this nation because they have encamped in his region – Moav. Unbeknown to Am Yisrael (how little we know), the curse turns to bracha and Balak’s evil plot fails at this point.
But then disaster occurs to the nation of Israel, utter and complete debacle.
“וישב ישראל בשטים ויחל העם לזנות את בנות מואב” (במדבר כה:א)
“Israel settled in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moav.”
How could they!? How could the Chosen Nation turn to committing such immoral behavior? This was a People who had dared not cross any lines of sexual depravity while they were in Egypt, the world capital of degradation and impurity. There, as hard as it was, they kept true to the most basic Torah values of family purity and the all encompassing mitzvah of kedushat habrit. How do you go from zero encroachments in this area (ok, maybe one) to twenty four thousand dying because they are guilty of voyeurism over night?
The question is compounded further after reading the observations of Bilaam when he saw Bnai Yisrael camped below in the Jordan Valley. When Bilaam testifies, “מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנותך ישראל” he proclaims that the Jewish people turn a mere tent into a Mishkan Hashem. We take a house and make it into a Jewish Home in which the Divine Presence dwells there. It is obviously clear that the Jewish Home that Bilaam is witnessing, something completely foreign to him, is predicated on the kedusha that is upheld between husband and wife. To stress the point further, Rash”I tells us not once but twice within a small section that “the entrance ways of the tents did not face one another so that one would not peek into the tent of his fellow.” (24:2,5)
Now, how in the world, just a few psukim later, do Bnai Yisrael go out and commit the most lowly and despicable acts of promiscuity???
Your answers would be most appreciated.
I will share one idea with you.
The Or Hachayim Hakadosh, whose yertzeiht was yesterday, explains how the first part of the verse (וישב ישראל בשטים ויחל העם לזנות את בנות מואב) sets up the extremely disturbing events that subsequently happen in the second half of the verse. When the Torah tells us וישב ישראל בשטים it is not only teaching us that they settled in Shittim, but rather, it comes to give us further background to the story. “The Torah is telling us, the reason the promiscuity took place,” explains the Or Hachayim, “is because the nation went on a tiyul outside of the camp and there they found the daughters of Moav.” As Rashi explains earlier in Bamidbar ((יא:ח, the word שטו means “took an excursion.” Here in כה:א members of Bnai Yisrael, having left the camp, sat in the place where they took a tiyul – שטים – and the immoral behavior ensued.
When we leave the Holy Camp of Bnai Yisrael we enter into unprotected territory and we jeopardize our kedusha. Even in 2015, the Jewish People are continuously blessed to have communities in which the core values of Yirat Shamayim, ahavat Torah, shemirat Mitzvot and ahavat Yisrael are strong and flourishing. One must cleave to these Kehilot Kedoshot to ensure that the entirety of Am Yisrael maintains this most essential Jewish value of family purity and kedusha.
Answers from our readers:
In answer to the question, “How could they”, this is what I heard (from Rav Avi Geller shlit”a): According to the Midrash, the Midianites first drew the Yisraelim into their tents by selling linens; outside there were old women offering poor deals, but inside the tents were beautiful Midianite girls offering great prices [insert mandatory joke about Jews and deals]. Once they were inside, it is likely that the Yisraelim thought, “Hey, I’ll m’kariv her, she’ll convert, and we’ll live a great frum life!” (I don’t know that that part is in the Midrash) Well, she offered him a drink, then another, then another . . . So basically, it was a slippery slope and, initially, decent intentions that let them to sin.
It seems to me that this is one final message as to how we can go off the right path that Hashem has laid out for us. Going back to Behaalosecha and continuing through Balaak we see a series of sins, errors of judgement, lack of faith etc. on the part of individuals and the nation as a whole. In Balaak we see two counter issues. The first is the evil that can exist in the nations and how our behavior is really not the issue. There is sometimes nothing we can do to prevent this as we see today. The second is what happens when we leave the correct path and how this can lead to a herd mentality and a snow ball effect. Twenty four thousand is a very large number and something really went wrong to trigger this. How and why did it happen I do not know. But what we can say is that we must be constantly on guard to reflect on our behavior and be sure to follow leaders who have earned our trust. All too often in history we have seen what happens to Am Yisrael with other people following leaders who have taken them down very evil roads. Our Mitzvot and our traditions help us avoid this terrible mistake by us. Hopefully we will learn a very important message from this great tragedy which was only ended by the courage of Pincus.
Prof. Michael Miller
It seems many people–if not most–fall into the category of “bipolar.” I think we, as a Nation, are most definitely a “bipolar” nation (we’re quick to forget the past and so easily turn to the same faulty behavior as soon as it looks like we’re in the open). Just look at how quick we have been to forget the lessons of the Holocaust. We’re just a generation or two removed from the massacre of a third of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis, and now Iran is openly preparing the next bigger slaughter (G-d forbid). Shockingly, in the last US election, 74% American Jews voted in favor of a president who’s done everything in his power to help Iran attain this goal.
This could be the case with last week’s parsha. Just like we often use the concept of “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים” when alluding to our lofty national character values, so too, we can see history being repeated (G-d forbid) in the most negative way possible. Hopefully, we can do some self-examining in the nick of time and not have to face the same ordeal we’ve experienced at the hands of one enemy after another dating back to our forefathers. We have only Hashem and ourselves to trust in when facing an overwhelmingly inhospitable world. Perhaps our redemption will come when we turn to Him in search of answers instead of wicked world leaders more interested in advancing their personal agendas than the good of mankind.