An Intellectual Embarrassment

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, begins with the sanctification of Pinchas as a Kohen. This honor was bestowed on him as a special reward for his heroic deed. There is nothing more detestable to the Creator than when His chosen people descend into idolatry and immorality.

We are supposed to be a special nation distinguished by its affirmation of the true G-d of reality, its embrace of a life of kedushah (holiness), and its absolute negation of idolatry. The evil sorcerer, Bilaam, had been hired by Balak to curse the Jews. Hashem prevented him from doing this and, instead, made him the instrument through which the most beautiful praises of Israel would be expressed. 

Hashem gave Bilaam the gift of prophecy, and his words were recorded in the Torah. One would think that this would have been a transformative experience for him. After perceiving all the wonderful things that were destined for the Jewish nation, we are amazed that Bilaam did not follow the example of his fellow Midianite, Yitro, and join them.

There was a fundamental flaw in Bilaam’s character. The beautiful visions he beheld did not impact his soul. Balak had summoned him to curse the Jews, thereby making it possible to drive them from his territory. Due to Hashem’s absolute prohibition, Bilaam was unable to accommodate him. 

However, his failure to satisfy Balak’s request disturbed him. Because he needed recognition and approval, he came up with a diabolical plan to damage the Jews. Bilaam knew a thing or two about Judaism. He understood that the G-d of the Jews hated immorality. He also realized that, if the Jews could be enticed into idol worship, they would be vulnerable to the A-mighty’s retribution. Bilaam understood the power of lust and sexual seduction. 

He crafted the scheme to have the Moabite women offer their sexual favors to the Jewish men and thereby lure them into the worship of Baal Peor. It was only because Bilaam was so steeped in sensuality that he was able to conjure such a plot. His lack of personal holiness was the flaw that prevented him from becoming a truly great prophet. His plan worked, and, in punishment, a plague broke out, taking the lives of 24,000 sinners.

Pinchas’s deed was so great that it ended the plague. A Jewish tribal leader was consorting with a Moabite princess, and they were publicly flaunting their relationship. Pinchas assumed the role of a righteous zealot who, in circumstances like this, are permitted to “deal with” the sinners. He had the courage to risk public condemnation for the sake of sanctifying G-d’s name.

Pinchas reaffirmed the fundamental character of the Jewish people as one that abhors immorality. Throughout history, the Jews have been distinguished by their modesty and family purity. A life of sexual lust and hedonistic indulgence is contrary to our national mission to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

This lesson has great relevance for contemporary Jews. The world around us is divesting itself of traditional morality. The governing principle is that there is no absolute moral right or wrong. Everyone must have the freedom to pursue their own instinctual gratification and to engage in any form of carnal behavior, no matter how grotesque it may appear to more refined souls. The mantra of the sexual revolution was “do your own thing,” and all forms of gratification are good, as long as “nobody gets hurt.” 

Judaism maintains that the essence of man is the divine soul, and sensual craving stems from the physical, animalistic aspect of his nature. Our life’s task is to perfect our soul and to master our impulses. We do this by employing discipline to satisfy our desires in a rational and constructive manner. This is the path to holiness.

The purpose of sexuality is procreation. Man’s carnal impulses must be gratified in the framework of marriage, whose chief purpose is to have and raise a wholesome family. Judaism is categorically opposed to the Supreme Court’s recent (badly mistaken) decision to make gay marriage a constitutional right. In my opinion, the legal reasoning behind the majority decision is an intellectual embarrassment. 

Jews must not be seduced by the hedonism of the times. We must proclaim the truth to Jew and gentile alike. We need to remind everyone of the Biblical commandment to “Be holy, for I, the L-rd your G-d, am holy.”

Shabbat shalom.