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This week's Parsha picks up the story of Moav's scheme to entice the Jewish people into immorality. Not only do the Moabite women seduce the Jewish men, but they also lure them into worshipping the Moabite national idol, "Baal Peor." As a result, a plague breaks out and 24,000 Jews die.
To understand the dynamics of this story, we need to look back in time 400 years to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As the cities are being ravaged by rains of sulfur-and-fire, Abraham's nephew Lot escapes into the hills with his two daughters. The daughters look out upon the devastation, and presume they are the only survivors left on earth. That would make their father the only living male. So in order to propagate the human species, they initiate incestuous relations with their father. The two daughters get Lot drunk and ... nine months later, each gives birth to a baby boy. (Genesis 19:30-38)
The younger daughter named her son "Ben-Ami," which means "son of my people." She felt uncomfortable about the incest, and modestly concealed the baby's lineage.
The older daughter also felt uncomfortable about the incest, but she dealt with it in the much different way. She figured that by presenting incest as a valid alternative lifestyle, that would totally justify her behavior and she'd have nothing to feel guilty about! In other words, "I can do whatever I want ... and who are you to tell me otherwise?!"
So she brazenly named her son "Moav," which means "from my father." She made "incest" the child's name!
In this week's Parsha, it is the descendents of this boy, Moav, who go on to entice the Jewish men to sexual immorality and worship of the idol Baal Peor.
What is unique about this idol? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 60b) describes various modes of idolatrous worship: Some are served by offering human sacrifice; others are served by tossing stones at the idol. But the method of serving Baal Peor is most unusual – it is worshipped through defecation.
What is the significance of this mode of worship?
The Talmud says that humans share three primary functions with animals: eating, procreation, and waste elimination.
The Jewish approach to life is to uplift the physical by connecting it to the spiritual. We sanctify the act of eating by consuming only kosher food. We sanctify the act of sex by doing so in the context of a loving, committed marital relationship. And we sanctify the act of waste elimination by saying a blessing to thank God for the miraculous functioning of the human body.
The Godless society does quite the opposite: Eating is glorified as an act of physical indulgence, with prizes to the winner of the hot dog-eating contest. Sex is likewise glorified as physical indulgence, objectified in advertising, film, and across the internet.
Given this basic ideology, the fact that Moav glorified the physical act of defecation should not be such a surprise.
Pushing the Envelope
Once on a visit to Rome, I stopped by to see the ancient Coliseum, where a tour guide was speaking to a group of Americans. "This architectural and engineering marvel seated 50,000 people," he said. "The main event each day was gladiatorial combat. Sometimes man against man, sometimes man against beast. But always a fight to the death. The Coliseum could even be filled with water in order to stage mock naval battles. The smell of blood was so thick that the Coliseum featured giant fountains which sprayed perfume into the air."
At which point, a man wearing an Oakland Raiders hat and Mike Tyson t-shirt turned to his friend wearing a "Terminator" t-shirt and said, "Oh my – how barbaric!"
Our society is slipping further away and there is virtually no end to how bad it can get. When one entertainer pushes the envelope of acceptability, the next has to push it further. It becomes a competition – not for who can most uplift the human condition. But for who can be the most gross and extreme. That, too, is an endeavor which takes creativity, ingenuity and skill. And in the '90s, Madonna, Dennis Rodman, or Geraldo Rivera are all amply rewarded in society with fame and fortune.
Yet on the other hand, who's to say it's wrong? In a Godless society, one person's disgust is simply another's entertainment.
The Pinchas Approach
In this week's Parsha, the Moabite women are in the midst of seducing the Jewish men, and a plague breaks out. It is a physical manifestation of a social disease. So one Jew, Pinchas, stands up and thrusts his spear into an offending couple. The plague stops. And God awards Pinchas the world's first Peace Prize.
God testifies that for that time and place, Pinchas' approach was correct. Today of course, a much more diplomatic approach is needed. But the need to react is there all the same.
What can we do? Be a role model. Stand up for what's right. Put your foot down in your school, your neighborhood, and your own home. Be willing to say: "That behavior is wrong and it is ruining lives."
What if a suicidal cult moved in next door. Would you object? Or is "everything okay for consenting adults?"
Decide which side of the fence you are on. And then do something about it.