Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And we dwelt in the valley, opposite the Temple of Peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29)
The contents of the final book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, are almost sandwiched between two curious references to a detestable idol: Ba’al Peor. At the conclusion of the first part of Moses’ farewell speech to the Israelites, the text informs us that when Moses relinquished the baton of Jewish leadership to Joshua, “the Israelites had settled in the valley, opposite the Temple of Peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29). Then at the closing of the book, in a poignant passage summarizing Moses’s life, the text reads: “And He [God] buried [Moses] in the valley in the Land of Moab opposite the Temple of Peor; no human being knows his burial place until this day” (Deut. 34:6).
Is it not strange that the only real landmark by which to identify Moses’s grave is “opposite the Temple of Peor”? What makes these references especially startling is the disgusting manner in which this idol was served: by defecating in front of it! What kind of idolatry is this? And what type of repulsive individuals would it be likely to attract?
Furthermore, the Sages of the Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 106a) suggest that when Balaam advised the Moabites on how to vanquish the Israelites, he suggested that they bring Moabite women to entice the Israelites and then assimilate them into their culture. In effect, Balaam was explaining that, although no external soothsayer or prophet could get the Almighty to curse Israel, the Israelites could in fact curse themselves out of existence through sexual licentiousness with gentile women. And so, “the Israelites dwelt in Shittim, and began to engage in harlotry with the daughters of Moab” – but God was not angry at them. It was only when “they became attached to Baal Peor that the wrath of God flared up against them” (Numbers 25:1-3). Sexual immorality led to idolatrous worship of Peor – and it was this idolatry that would ultimately ruin Israel.
What is it about Peor that is not only abominable but also so dangerous?
Balaam’s advice causes the Israelites to degenerate to lower and lower depths and the sexual debauchery becomes interchanged and intermingled with the worship and joining “together” with Peor. At this point, God tells Moses to take all the leaders of the nation and to slay them under the rays of the sun; but no sooner does Moses give this command than an Israelite (Zimri ben Salou, a prince of the tribe of Simeon) cohabits (joins together with) the Midianite princess Cosbi bat Zur – a flagrant and disgustingly public act of rebellion against Moses, his teaching and his authority. It appears as though Jewish history was about to conclude even before it had a chance to begin – when Phinehas steps in and saves the day.
Phinehas seems to have been the antidote to Balaam, who, as we know from our text, was the son of Beor, strikingly similar to Peor (and in Semitic languages “b” and “p” can be interchangeable). It clearly emerges from the Talmudic discussion (B.T. Sanhedrin 64a) that Peor is the nadir – the lowest depth – of idolatrous practice. Is defecating before an idol the worst expression of idolatrous behavior?
The first two chapters of the Book of Genesis begin with two stories of the creation of the human being. Rav Soloveitchik describes these as two ways of looking at human personality: the first he calls homo natura, natural man, the human being as an inextricable part of the physical and animal world. This is mechanistic man, scientifically predetermined and pre-programmed, devoid of freedom and so (ironically) freed from responsibility.
The second aspect of the human personality is introduced in the second chapter of Genesis with God’s breathing the breath of life, a portion of His very essential self (as it were), His soul, into the clay body He has just formed. This results in homo persona, a vitalistic and free human being, responsible for his actions and charged with the obligation to perfect, or complete, God’s imperfect and incomplete world.
And God created homo persona! Homo persona is given the command to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit, to control his physical drives and impulses, to recreate himself as well as the world around him.
Peor says that man must give back to God his animal and physical excretions, that man cannot be expected to rise above his nature and become God’s partner. Moses taught, on the other hand, that man can and must enable, uplift and sanctify his material being until he can truly see himself as “only a little lower than God, crowned with honor and glory.”
Moses and Phinehas are the antithesis of Balaam and Peor, and so Moses is buried opposite Peor.