Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Balak 5776
A Question of Propriety
Something had changed. These were not the people who had left Egypt; that generation had already perished. This was a new generation, either born or raised in freedom. The only leader they had known was Moshe; Pharaoh was a name from the past, someone their parents told them about on Passover. This generation would be different; they would see the Promised Land.
The previous parashah, Hukat, ends with a sudden stirring among the nations who would face the first wave of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. And other nations who had anticipated the Israelite fighting forces, who were dangerously close to their land. Much of this week’s parasha is concerned with the machinations of these nations. They dread the impending confrontation, and come up with an original approach to head off the conquest: Tremendous resources are invested in an effort to curse the Israelites. When this strategy fails, they infiltrate the Israelite camp with a clever sort of Trojan horse, in a last-ditch attempt to corrupt the community from within and render the Israelites unworthy of God’s protection: Moavite women approach the Israelite camp and seduce the men, first with pleasures of the flesh and then with exotic religious practices.
God’s anger is kindled:
God said to Moshe, Gather all the nation’s leaders, and [instruct them to] kill them [in the name of] God, publicly (literally, before the sun). This will reverse God's display of anger against Israel.' (25:3)
Pinchas then jumps in and actively carries out God’s decree by killing a Jewish man and Midianite woman. His action, the reactions to it, and the significance of this event are all somewhat confusing: First, the language is cumbersome and unclear: God instructed to kill “them” (otam); who does this pronoun refer to? Is it the Jewish men? Is it the Moavite women? Is it those who were guilty of inappropriate sexual behavior, or is it those who participated in the idolatry that followed? In a later verse, the Torah clarifies that the Israelite man killed by Pinchas was himself one of the leaders: Zimri ben Salu is described as the leader of the tribe of Shimon (25:14). As such, Zimri should have been part of the solution, but instead was part of the problem.
Zimri contented that he was not one of “them;” he was one of the leaders. He was not guilty of idolatry, only an old fashioned sin of the flesh, and his partner in this sin was not a Moavite, she was a Midianite. This last part of his defense was especially sensitive and was intended as a personal attack against Moshe: If a relationship with a Midianite woman was inappropriate, how did Moshe himself come to marry a woman from Midian – the daughter of Yitro, “Kohen of Midian?”
The parallel that Zimri implies is clearly preposterous: Moshe married Ziporah, and never engaged in the public displays of sexuality for which Zimri stood accused. On the other hand, after Zimri voices this comparison, Moshe finds himself in a very difficult situation: If he responds or takes action, he will be branded a hypocrite; Zimri paints Moshe as an extremist, a charge so subjective and lacking substance that anything Moshe says or does can be used against him as “proof.” On the other hand, if Moshe fails to speak out or act, the outrageous behavior will spread and he will appear guilty as charged.
One more consideration may have stayed Moshe’s hand: Coming on the heels of the episode with the rock, for which Moshe was severely censured by God, Moshe may have been a bit “gun shy.” He seems hesitant to fulfill God’s command before taking some extra time to be certain he has fully and precisely understood God’s instructions. As we have seen, the instructions in this case were not completely clear. Who was to be killed? And by whom? Particularly regarding Zimri –a tribal leader who was, at the same time, one of the sinners - Moshe hesitates.
Before responding, Moshe must weigh not only right and wrong, but the people’s perception of his behavior: Just as hitting the rock gave them the impression that it was he (and Aharon) – and not God - who had miraculously provided them with water, so, now, he feared that the people would be given a mistaken impression – namely, that there is one set of rules for the masses and another set of rules for the leaders. Moshe did not want to give the impression that anyone – not even he himself – was above the law. The possibility that there could be a perception of impropriety paralyses him --and it is precisely Moshe’s personal sense of propriety that Zimri was banking on: He cynically exploits Moshe’s personal decency in order to neutralize him.
Against this backdrop, Pinchas leaps into action. He sees through Zimri’s cynicism and duplicity; he understands the instructions given to Moshe by God, and implements them with great precision.
Even Moshe’s “inaction” contains a great lesson: When it comes to leaders, we must expect not only the highest standard of personal comportment, but also the perception of decency. Any other type of behavior gives rise to cynicism, pollutes the public domain, and leads to “trickle down” immorality. Moshe, the greatest leader we have ever had, teaches us this invaluable lesson --even when he does absolutely nothing.
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