We all know the story of the rabbi sitting in a Berlin coffeehouse in 1935 and reading Der Sturmer, the Nazi newspaper. His secretary asks, why are you reading the Nazi libels? Are you a masochist or a self-hating Jew? To which the rabbi answers, “Quite the opposite. When I read the Jewish papers all I see are troubles in Palestine, loss of freedoms in Germany, assimilation in the United States. But in Der Sturmer I see that we Jews control the banks, dominate the arts and will soon take over the whole world. It makes me feel a whole lot better.”
As Rabbi Ari Kahn points out, the same approach is taken in our parsha. Let’s compare. The Moabites and Midianites see Jews as bulls (strong animals!) just waiting to pounce and “lick up all the vegetation” around them. In other words, we are numerous and so strong… Now compare this to the description that 10 of the Israelite spies brought back to Moshe. In Canaan, they say, we saw GIANTS! We were like grasshoppers in their eyes. Weaklings! Nebbuchs. Which description of us would you prefer to read?
If we take this one step further, we may understand why the most lyrical and heartfelt blessings for the Israelites in the Torah are uttered by none other than an avowed enemy of our people, a goy, who didn’t want to bless us but did, and who despite the blessings continued to harbor bad feelings toward us (perhaps because our God made him lose the money he didn’t get from Balak!).
We can say that the blessings were not Balaam’s own words but rather those of God, who put them in the mouth of this vituperative anti-Semite. Would any Jew describe us so positively? Nevertheless… So beautiful are the blessings that one serves to open our services in the morning – mah tovu ohalecha yaacov: how goodly are your tents, o Jacob.
Despite Balaam’s good words about us, he is reviled by CHAZAL as an unrepentant money-grabber who hated us. In fact, he is accused of suggesting that the Moabite women seduce the Israelite men (who were evidently not very hard to seduce). Thus the phantasmagoric story of Balaam and his talking ass, and the curses that come out as blessings ends on a sorry note.
In the final paragraph of the parsha we read how the Israelites dance and engage in debauchery, directly in front of Moshe and the elders. This is the segue into the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aharon, who takes up arms and spears an Israelite man and a Midianite woman, thus ending a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites.
This is also a transition from words to deeds, from incantations to piercings, and being the fineshmekers that we are today, we have to ask, could the situation have been resolved otherwise? And a related question, why didn’t Moshe himself do something to stop the desecration of God’s name and commandments?
The second question is easier, so let’s answer it first. Moshe had taken a Midianite wife, the daughter of Yitro, the high priest of Midian. Had he intervened, some wise guy would have said, “It was OK for you to take a Midianite woman but not for us?”
There are of course obvious differences. Moshe had no erotic dancing and provocations and just wanted to build a family life. But again, we see that Moshe was not willing to do anything that could be interpreted in the wrong way. He was the same way about remembering favors. In the stories of the plagues, Moshe would not “punish” the Nile with blood or frogs because it was the Nile that had saved him.
Let’s return to our first question, was there any other way out of this quandary? Consider the facts: many Israelites were consorting with the Midianite women, including sacrificing to Baal Peor. The situation was unravelling rapidly and so a plague broke out that killed 24,000. The dynamics were extremely strong and the next step was unclear. Could 40 years of wandering the desert be coming to an end with complete annihilation?
No delegation was available from the United Nations or the United States. No peacekeeping mission could be mounted. Some extreme act was necessary to rip the people out of their trance. Pinchas took up the challenge and killed the most egregious perpetrators.
Why does this execution work? Is it because God saw that someone in the Israelite camp was taking action to stand up for God (and so he stopped the plague)? Was it because the killing of a leader awakened the people? Either or neither of the choices can explain it.
Obviously, Pinchas’ success does not condone violence in every situation. Pinchas seemed to be motivated by zealousness for God. Today’s that’s a good excuse for all sorts of messianic and meshugene behavior, but the story as told in the parsha seems to ring true. There’s no comparison to actions that might be motivated by racial or political ideologies.
So Balaam was a nasty man who spoke beautiful poetry. Pinchas was a zealot whose violence imposed an uneasy peace between nation and God. What a confused message the two of them send us!