Thursday, July 01, 2010

Parshat Pinchas - פרשת פינחס

" צָרוֹר, אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִים; וְהִכִּיתֶם, אוֹתָם. כִּי צֹרְרִים הֵם לָכֶם, בְּנִכְלֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר-נִכְּלוּ לָכֶם עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר; וְעַל-דְּבַר כָּזְבִּי בַת-נְשִׂיא מִדְיָן, אֲחֹתָם, הַמֻּכָּה בְיוֹם-הַמַּגֵּפָה, עַל-דְּבַר-פְּעוֹר - Harass the Midianites, and smite them; for they harass you, by their conspiracy that they conspired against you regarding the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague regardig the matter of Peor."
(Numbers 25: 17-18)

At first glance, one might regard the command above, vengeful and full-blooded as it seems, as stereotypically biblical. "Smite!" Always in vogue in the Bible, right? No harsher punishment for God to employ than to make use of the 'smite' button. Seriously though, and all jokes aside, we may learn a lot from the manner of punishment set aside for the Midianites. It's not just a simple matter of them crossing God's path and paying the ultimate price.

The Yalkut Lekach Tov brings a beautiful D'var Torah posited by Rabbi Leib Chasman in his sefer, Or Yahel. He explains that the Midianites were accorded an unusually heavy punishment. If we compare the punishment reserved for the Midianites with the punishments handed out to the Edomites and the Egyptians elsewhere in the Torah, we see that this 'smite' option clearly wasn't the only one that God had at his disposal. These two nations had both put the Jews to the sword, seemingly a far worse crime to that of the Midianites and the Moabites. While their punishment was strong indeed, we find an intriguing caveat recorded in Parshat Ki Tetzei, "לֹא-תְתַעֵב אֲדֹמִי, כִּי אָחִיךָ הוּא; לֹא-תְתַעֵב מִצְרִי, כִּי-גֵר הָיִיתָ בְאַרְצוֹ - You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land." (Deuteronomy 23:8) This seems rather unusual - why would we not abhor a people who tried to kill us? If not for people like this, then who?

To be sure, the Edomites and the Egyptians downright nasty to the Jews and The Torah certainly doesn't expect us to love them. But we are not to abhor these peoples - that level of distaste is to be saved for the nations who attempt to dissuade us from our religion. A few verses before the passage above, we read that "לֹא-יָבֹא עַמּוֹנִי וּמוֹאָבִי, בִּקְהַל יְהוָה: גַּם דּוֹר עֲשִׂירִי, לֹא-יָבֹא לָהֶם בִּקְהַל יְהוָה עַד-עוֹלָם - An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of hashem; even [after] the tenth generation; none of them may enter into the assembly of Hashem forever." (Deuteronomy 23:4) The reason given there is simple; not only did they fail to meet the parched Jews in the desert with bread and water, but they went out of their way to curse them.

All well and good. But why is it that the Egyptians and the Edomites get off lightly? The reason for the seemingly heavy punishment accorded to the Moabites and Ammonites may be sourced to a principle taught by the Jewish sages: "המחטיא את חברו קשה מההורגו." (Loosely rendered as "one who causes his fellow to sin is reckoned as worse than one who had killed him.")

Take for example our contemporaries who write theories decrying and mocking religion. Unfortunately, these are amongst the most highly respected people of our time. We might imagine that this while besmirching religion and perverting people's minds are certainly bad things, they surely cannot be as as evil as such a final act as killing one's fellow. Nevertheless, the Torah does not see things that way, as we have seen with the phrase above: "one who causes his fellow to sin is reckoned as worse than one who had killed him."

How can this be? Rabbi Chasman explains this different perspective well, pointing out that while a killer only kills his victim just the once, someone who perverts others tends to do so repeatedly. Once a killer dies, he can kill no more. But even after a writer and purveyor of sacrilegious and wickedness thought has left this world, their evil still lives on. Also the way in which they affect their victims is markedly different, as the Sages explain; "He who kills - in this world. But he who causes to sin - in this world and in the next world."

And now we may understand the logic of the decrees reserved for these respective nations. While it cannot be denied that the Egyptians, for example, committed a grave offence by murdering and oppressing the Jews, they only affected that generation of Jews. The punishment is very much measure-for-measure. The killer's affect is only temporary, we might say, and therefore the first three generations were denied to the right to enter the Jewish assembly. But nations like the Moabites who tried to curse the Jews forever, on the other hand, these people get exactly what they deserve and are denied that opportunity for eternity.

I think that there's a very relevant lesson we may take from this. We may not ever stumble across a Moabite or an Ammonite in our day-to-day lives, or ever get close to killing someone, we do each have the opportunity to affect other people's lives. We all are able to cause other people to act errantly.

Every day that we get into social situations where we can talk badly about others, for example. By allowing ourselves to enter such conversations, we legitimate them. Doubtless we would resent others talking about us that way, but we seem to care less when the subject of the conversation is someone else. Every single one of us is a leader to someone else, whether we know it, or indeed acknowledge it, or not. If we take care to act and talk in the right way, we can make a real impression on others for the good. And the same goes for the reverse. May we all understand our role in this world and only ever act as a good example for others.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom :)

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