What Was the Sin? Parshat Pinchas

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Why did Pinchas kill Kozbi? Was it because of her immoral sexual seduction of an Israelite, Zimri ben Salou, or because she and her Midianite clan worshipped the idol Pe’or? Rashi (ad loc.) is aware of the ambiguity of the verse and suggests that the end-goal of the Midianites, and the reason for which they sent their daughters to tempt the Israelite men, was to get the Israelites to worship Pe’or.

And, in fact, there does seem to be a strong linkage between blatant sexual immorality among Jew and gentile and worship of Pe’or as the mother of all idolatries. But what exactly is the central nature of the transgression here? Sexual immorality between Jew and gentile or Pe’or idolatry?

I would argue that a careful reading of Pinchas’ act clearly emphasizes a fusion of two intermingled transgressions. In last week’s Torah portion, the introduction to the story of public cohabitation begins:“And the Israelites dwelt in Shittim, and began to whore after the daughters of Moab. And it happened that the Israelite nation served their idols … and Israel became joined to Ba’al Pe’or; the anger of God waxed hot against Israel” [ibid., v. 1–3].

What was the sin? Was it whoring or the idolatry of Pe’or? Clearly, it was both together!

However, when the Talmud describes the evil counsel that Bil’am offered the nations who wished to vanquish Israel, the picture presented is one of sexual seduction by the young gentile women [Sanhedrin 106a]. It would seem that the sin was an idolatry linked to sexual abandon, both transgressions joined together.

In order to truly understand this, as well as to understandthe idolatrous nature of our own society today, we must attempt to understand the nature of Pe’or idolatry. The Mishnah [Sanhedrin 7:6] teaches that Pe’or was worshipped by defecating in front of his graven image, the kind of “appetizing” religious cult that one would think hardly could attract masses of adherents.

Yet, apparently Pe’or was very popular, at least for Midianites and Moabites. Yes, defecation is a perfectly normal human function, and the individual who relieves himself genuinely feels relieved! Hence, goes this thought, that is exactly how god is to be served! “Do whatever is natural to do, do whatever makes you feel good.”

Rabbinical voices such as Menachem Meiri (13th-century Spain) were absolutely correct: Idolatry has less to do with theology and much to do with the “disgusting, immoral practices” of those who follow the teachings of the likes of Pe’or. Zimri ben Salou was not only expressing his desire; he was rebelling against Moses, against God,
and against the very foundation of Torah.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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