Israel settled in Shittim; and the people began to stray after the daughters of Moab. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods … and Israel joined themselves to Baal Peor…
There was once a gentile woman who was very ill, who vowed: “If this woman recovers from her illness, she will go and worship every idol in the world.” She recovered, and proceeded to worship every idol in the world. When she came to Peor, she asked its priests: “How is this one worshipped?” Said they to her: “One eats greens and drinks beer, and then one defecates before the idol.” Said she: “I’d rather that this woman return to her illness than worship an idol in such a manner.”
Talmud, Sanhedrin 64a
Idolatry is the deification of an object or force of the created reality. Ancient man worshipped the sun because it kept him warm, lighted his way and nurtured his crops; the moon, wind, earth, water and trees were also gods, to be thanked and beseeched for the gifts they bestowed upon man. This was like thanking the hammer for building a home or the scythe for the year’s harvest, rather than the creator and wielder of these tools; nevertheless, every idolatry has a certain logic, however misguided—one is venerating a (presumed) source of life and nourishment. Every idolatry, that is, with the exception of Baal Peor, which is the pagan practice of worshipping one’s own excrement. Here the person is venerating waste—that which has been left over and rejected after all nutritive potential has been extracted from a substance.
The people of Israel were at Shittim, the last of their 42 encampments in the desert, when a significant number of them joined the Moabites and Midianites in the worship of Baal Peor. The Jews were at the final stage of their generation-long journey from Sinai to the Holy Land—from the scene of G-d’s revelation of His will to man to the place of its ultimate realization—yet they succumbed to the most irrational and repugnant form of idolatry on the face of the earth. In truth, however, it was precisely their proximity to the Holy Land that made them susceptible to the idolatry of Peor.
The transition from a people journeying through the desert to a people settled upon their land was the transition from a wholly spiritual life to a life of involvement with the material world. In the desert, the people of Israel were nourished by the miraculous “bread from heaven” and the “well of Miriam,” while “clouds of glory” sheltered them and preserved their clothes, enabling them to pursue the divine wisdom of Torah and commune with G-d free of all material cares. But once they crossed the Jordan, the “bread from heaven” was replaced with bread from the earth—bread for which one must expend much bodily toil: plowing, sowing, reaping and engaging in the numerous other labors required to eke nourishment from physical soil. Once they crossed the Jordan, their spiritual idyll was replaced with the mundane particulars of physical life: commerce, politics, war, diplomacy, and so on.
This was why the generation of the Exodus spurned the land, preferring their spiritual haven in the desert to the trials and challenges of statehood. They failed to appreciate that the purpose of life on earth is not to escape the material world—were this the case, the Torah would have been given to the supernal angels, who can outspirit the most spiritual of men. Rather, the reason G-d took them out of Egypt and gave them the Torah was for them to enter the land of Canaan, conquer it and settle it, and proceed to make it a “Holy Land”—a land receptive of the holiness of G-d. In the words of the Midrash, “G-d desired a dwelling within the physical world.” “This is what man is all about,” writes Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, “[this is] the purpose of his creation and the creation of all the worlds, both spiritual and physical: that G-d should have a dwelling place within the physical world.”
Now, a new generation had taken their place, a generation raised with the mission of entering the land and fulfilling the divine desire for a home within the physical existence. It was this generation who, on the eve of the realization of their mission to sanctify the physical, fell prey to the idolatry of Peor.
It was a hot July day in the summer of 1866. The children of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, five-year-old Sholom DovBer and his brother Zalman Aharon, had just come home from cheder and were playing in the garden which adjoined their home.
In the garden stood a trellis overgrown with vines and greenery which offered protection from the heat of the sun. It was set up as a study, and Rabbi Shmuel would sit there on the hot summer days.
The children were arguing about what it means to be a Jew. Zalman Aharon, the elder by a year and four months, posited that the Jews are a “wise and understanding people” who can, and do, study lots of Torah, both its exoteric laws and its mystical secrets, and pray with devotion and deveikut (attachment to G-d).
Said the young Sholom DovBer:
“But this is true only of those Jews who learn and pray. What about Jews who are unable to study and who do not pray with deveikut? What is their specialness?”
Zalman Aharon did not know how to reply.
The children’s sister, Devorah Leah, ran to tell their father of their argument. Rabbi Shmuel called them to the trellis, and sent the young Sholom DovBer to summon Ben-Zion, a servant in the Rebbe’s home.
Ben-Zion was a simple Jew who read Hebrew with many mispronunciations and barely understood the most rudimentary prayers. When the servant arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Ben-Zion, did you eat today?”
“Yes,” replied Ben-Zion.
“Did you eat well?”
“What’s ‘well’?” wondered Ben-Zion. “Thank G-d, I did not remain hungry.”
“And why did you eat?”
“So that I may live.”
“But why live?”
“To be a Jew and do what G-d wants,” sighed the servant.
“You may go,” said the Rebbe. “Send me Ivan the coachman.”
Ivan was a gentile who had grown up among Jews from early childhood and spoke a perfect Yiddish. When the coachman arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Did you eat today?”
“Did you eat well?”
“And why do you eat?”
“So that I may live.”
“But why live?”
“To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat,” replied the coachman.
It is the nature of our physical selves that every constructive physical act is accompanied by a sensation of pleasure. Eating is crucial to the sustenance of life, so the consumption of food is a pleasurable activity. The body requires rest, so we desire and enjoy sleep. The most profound of physical pleasures is that deriving from the most divine of physical acts—the act of procreation, by which man emulates his Creator.
Pleasure, then, is the by-product of an act’s purposefulness. Eating, sleeping and procreating all have a purpose—to sustain and perpetuate a physical life that serves the divine will; it is to aid and drive this purpose that these deeds are pleasurable. Pleasure divorced from its purpose—pleasure for the sake of pleasure—is a corrupt pleasure, a subversion of its function and utility. A physical act has meaning and validity only insofar as it serves the divine purpose in creation; when the pleasure associated with the act becomes its end, it is a hollow act, an act depleted of its soul and divine vitality.
This is the deeper significance of the idolatry of Baal Peor. The worshippers of Peor hallowed their bodily waste: to them, matter alone, even that which has been depleted of all vital potential, was an object of veneration. The very thought of such “worship” might be repulsive to any sane individual, but this is exactly what a person does when he regards the physical as desirable in and of itself, rather than for its vital content—its potential to serve the divine purpose in creation.
This was the error of those who indulged in Peor-worship on the eve of their entry into the Holy Land. Their parents would never have made such an mistake—indeed, the manna that sustained them did not produce any bodily waste, but was completely absorbed by their bodies and converted into the energy of life. The very concept of “waste”—of matter bereft of divine potential—was unknown to them. But this was a new generation—a generation raised on the ideal of making “holy” an adjective of “land”; a generation taught that the purpose of creation is realized within the material existence. In making the transition from a life of unfettered spirituality to the physical life mandated by the Torah, they went one step too far, coming to regard the physical as sacred in its own right rather than as the “food” that vitalizes a life in the service of G-d.
Moses’ grave overlooks the temple of Peor. For Moses, the embodiment of truth, is the ultimate refuter of the lie of Peor — the lie that there is significance and worth to matter devoid of divine potential.
Nevertheless, Moses was unable to stop Israel’s degradation to the offal-worship of Peor. It was Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, who took action when all the leaders of Israel were paralyzed, eradicating the pestilence of Peor from the Israelite camp.
At the time, Pinchas had no position in the spiritual leadership of Israel. He wasn’t even a kohen, though he was a grandson of Aaron. He was mocked for being the grandson (from his mother’s side) of an infamous idolater. But precisely because of his mundane status and pagan ancestry, he was able to vanquish the arch-idolatry of Peor.
The Talmud tells us that the true mark of teshuvah (repentance) is when a person finds himself in the same situation in which he was at the time of his sin, and does not succumb to the temptation. Ultimately, a negative state cannot be rectified by transcending and escaping it, but only from within, by overcoming it in its “home base” and on its own terms.Moses’ spiritual truth might be the ultimate refutation of Peor; but once the people of Israel had been ensnared by the idil’s corporeality, they could only be extracted from it by the descendant of an idolater.
Moses was the most perfect human being who ever lived. Yet upon the completion of his 120-year sojourn upon earth, his soul departed from his body, which was interred in the earth. On the other hand, when Pinchas’ physical life reached its culmination, and his soul ascended to a purely spiritual state, his body ascended along with it. For Pinchas achieved the ultimate rectification of Peor: the refinement and sublimation of the physical self as a vessel of G-dliness.
Based on an entry in the Rebbe’s journal dated, “Balak, 5700 , Vichy”
Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Cf. Talmud, Avodah Zarah 55a commenting on Deuteronomy 4:19, “Lest you raise your eyes heavenward, and see the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the host of heaven, and be misled to bow to them and worship them—[these] which G-d has allotted to all the nations under the heavens.” The Hebrew word for “allotted”—chalak—also means “smoothed over,” implying, says the Talmud, that G-d has Himself paved the way for man’s error in worshipping the heavenly bodies by employing them as the means by which He sustains life on earth.
. Exodus 16:35; Rashi to Numbers 20:2 and Deuteronomy 8:4.
. As related in Numbers, chs. 13-14. See Fallen Angels, WIR, vol. V, no. 38.
. Cf. Talmud, Shabbat 89a: “When Moses went up to heaven [to receive the Torah], the angels asked G‑d: ‘What is a human being doing amongst us?’ Said He to them: ‘He has come to receive the Torah.’ Said they to Him: ‘This hidden treasure, which has been secreted with You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You wish to give to flesh and blood?… Place Your glory upon the heavens!’
“Said G‑d to Moses: ‘Answer them.’
“Said [Moses]: ‘Master of the Universe! This Torah that You are giving to me, what is written in it? “I am the L‑rd Your G‑d… You shall have no alien gods.” Do you dwell amongst idol‑worshipping nations?’ asked Moses of the angels … ‘What else does it say? “Remember the day of Shabbat.” Do you work? … “Do not swear falsely.” Do you do business? … “Honor your father and your mother.” Do you have parents? “Do not kill,” “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not steal.” Is there jealousy among you? Do you have an evil inclination?’ ”
. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16.
. Tanya, ch. 33.
. Later to succeed his father as the fifth Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.
. Deuteronomy 4:6.
. Told by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the son of Rabbi Sholom DovBer) in a letter dated Tevet 15, 5703 (December 23, 1942) (Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharayatz, vol. VII, pp. 70-73).
. In addition to the fact that man emulates his Creator by creating life, the power of procreation is an infinite one, possessing the potential to generate children who will themselves generate children, ad infinitum. Thus it is the one human faculty which has in it something of the infinity of the divine.
. Talmud, Yoma 75b and Rashi there. See Talmud, Taanit 9a, where it is implied that the water of Miriam’s well and the sheltering qualities of the “clouds of glory” were by-products of the manna; accordingly, we might assume that all their material provisions were “waste free.”
. Hence the place of their sin is called Shittim, which means “deviation” (cf. Rashi on Numbers 5:12).
. Thus their worship of Peor was accompanied by the sin of harlotry with the daughters of Midian. Harlotry is the act of procreation devoid of its divine function—stripped of the objective to create life (as per Talmud, Yevamot 35a). This is especially so regarding harlotry with a non-Jewish woman, in which case the offspring—even if there is offspring—is “not yours” (ibid., 17a), meaning that, for the Jew, it is an utterly purposeless act.
. Deuteronomy 34:6; cf. Tosafot on Talmud, Sotah 14a (s.v. mipenei).
. Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 32:1.
. When the Sanctuary was constructed a year after the Exodus, G-d appointed Aaron and his four sons as kohanim (priests) and decreed that their descendants should inherit the kehunah. This, however, pertained only to descendants born after their consecration as kohanim. Pinchas, the son of Aaron’s third son, Elazar, was born before the construction of the Sanctuary; he was thus an ordinary Israelite, until the kehunah was granted him by the word of G-d as a reward for his heroic deed (Rashi, Numbers 25:13).
. Putiel (Jethro) who “fattened calves for idolatrous worship” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 82b) and who “did not leave over any alien god which he did not pursue and worship” (Mechilta, Exodus 18:11).
. Talmud, Yoma 86b.
. Cf. Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b: “It is from the wood of the tree that a handle is fashioned for the ax that cuts it down”; see also Tanya, ch. 31.
. Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch (1773-1827) told that whenever a person came to him seeking his guidance in amending a sin or deficiency, he first had to find the same failing—however subtly—in himself, before he could help that person rectify it (Igrot Kodesh Admor Maharayatz, vol. III, pp. 379-385).
. Maimonides’ Commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to Perek Chelek, The Seventh Principle.
. As related in the second chapter of II Kings (Pinchas and Elijah are the same person—Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers 25:11; Targum Yonatan, Exodus 6:18; Zohar, part II, 190a; Rashi Bava Batra 114b; et al).
. Reshimot #50.