Peoring It On: Balak 2016

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: When was the last time you succumbed to peer pressure? When and why did it happen? Did you realize it when it happened?

Of all the sins the Israelites commits while wandering in the wilderness, the episode in Baal Peor recounted at the end of this week’s Torah portion is the only one influenced by a neighboring people and culture – or so it would seem. The result is a horrendous plague and a national crisis.

The Pitch: “And Israel abode in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of Adonai was kindled against Israel.” (Numbers 25:1-3)

Swing #1: “Why is the Baal of Peor such a threat to the Lord God? In point of historical fact, Baal, during the six centuries that Israel will occupy and, to varying degrees, rule Canaan, will be the ‘strange god’ who most appeals to the populace and most appalls the leadership. The appeal arises from the fact that, by becoming so warlike, stormy, and Baal-like at and after the time of the Exodus, the Lord has diminished the distance separating him from this one among his rivals.” – Jack Miles, God: A Biography

Swing #2: “Hardly has Balaam gone on his way when the Jewish people transgress once again, bringing God’s punishing anger upon them. The idyllic picture of Israel, reflected in Balaam’s words, is shattered in still another of a long litany of sin and punishment. Much of the book of Numbers records those shortcomings. The very Torah portion that begins with Balaam’s blessings concludes with a harsh incident in the story of a flawed people. In that context, the insistence of God that Balaam give voice only to blessings without even a hint at the failings of the people seems strange. … Balaam, under orders from Balak, was to curse the Israelite nation publicly. The desire was not for the benefit of Israel but rather to contribute to her downfall. Thus the text moves seamlessly from public blessing to more private critique. Both were seen as within the framework of Jewish ethics.” – Sheldon Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation

Swing #3: “Moses blessed 11 of the Tribes [at the end of his life]. Why did he not bless the Tribe of Simeon? Because in Moses’ heart there was a grievance against Simeon for the deed he was guilty of at Shittim. As Scripture tells us: ‘When Israel abode in Shittim … one of the children of Israel, [a Simeonite] … brought unto his brethren a Midianite woman …’” (Numbers 25:1, 6). – Pesikta D’Rav Kahana

Late-Inning Questions: Who is to blame for the Baal Peor incident? To Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, it is the fault of one Israelite tribe; to Miles, it is the Israelites who confuse God’s power with that of a false god; and to Rabbi Lewis, the incident is typical of Israel – it’s just that Balaam lacks the vision to see it. When we make big mistakes, to what extent are we willing to blame ourselves? When do we fault those around us? To what extent should Israel bear the blame for their actions?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Thanks again to everyone who participated in our Adult Education Parlor Meetings last month. To continue getting feedback, please fill out a quick survey so we can offer classes that interest you at times convenient for you. The survey can be completed in about two minutes. Please visit here between now and August 2nd.

The Big Inning at the End: Congratulations to Ken Griffey, Jr., and to Mike Piazza, who will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday. Here’s hoping that Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, among others, will join them next year. If anything, the Hall of Fame has too few inductees; when remembering the game’s great history, it’s best to recall as many outstanding players as possible.

Shabbat Shalom!