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Home » Balak

Balak: It’s All About Priorities

Submitted by on July 7, 2011 – 3:14 amNo Comment | 6,489 views

A Continuing Offense

A man went into confession to divulge that he had rescued a young Jewish boy from the Nazis. Why that sounds like a good deed, came the sonorous response from behind the curtain, why do you bring it up in confession? Because, explained the man, I have put the boy to work doing small errands and menial tasks around the house. Well, that is not so terrible, replied the voice, considering that you feed and clothe him. Yes, agreed the man, but must I inform him that the war is over?

There are sins that are one time offenses. We repent for them and never think of them again. Then there are continued or repeated offenses for which we must continue to answer. If a wife once worked to prepare dietetic foods for her husband and he noshed behind her back she has reason to be upset once. Bringing it up ten years later makes no sense . . . unless he continues to nosh.

The Recurring Allegation

Shortly before their entry to Israel the Jews succumbed to the terrible sins of promiscuity and idolatry. The Midianite women enticed the Jewish men to their tents and in the heat of passion threatened to deny the men relief unless they worshiped an Idol called Pe’or. (1) (2) The resulting Divine punishment took the form of a plague and 24000 Jews died before the plague was lifted.

One assumes this was a one-time affair for which our nation was punished and was since forgiven. Yet we are treated to a fascinating Midrashic account. The Midrash teaches that every year, on the anniversary of this episode, the Pe’or ascends before G-d to recount this sin. (3) That it is recounted every year implies that we continue to commit this sin. But in what way are we guilty of idol worship?

Filtering Out The Light

To understand this we must first understand the nature of this idol. Whereas most idols are worshiped by an act of reverence the Pe’or was worshiped by depositing the body’s waste before it. The secret behind this crude manner of worship becomes evident when we remember that human waste is what’s left of our food after the digestive system sifts out all the nutritious elements and incorporates them into the body’s blood supply. The leftover waste is of no use to us and is expelled.

There are angels that function as the Divine digestive system. This is not to imply that G-d generates waste. It means that the angels filter out the lofty emanations from the Divine radiance and reserve it for heaven and allow only the lowly and inferior lights to fall to earth.

When G-d created the world He wanted to give it a gift. The greatest gift He could possibly bestow was Himself and so He revealed dimensions of Himself through the light that radiates from Him. The spiritual beings that receive the gift of this revelation revel in it; their very essence melts in ecstasy and delights in this rarefied pleasure.

Yet one must be on a lofty and rarefied level to assimilate this proximity to G-d. Those spiritual beings that are incapable of absorbing this highly intense and magnified spiritual experience would be overwhelmed by it. In fact, they might expire and cease to exist if exposed to the heightened awareness of this revelation. Hence, the heavenly digestive system: Angels sift through the Divine radiance and skim off the loftiest dimensions, leaving only a mild form of revelation. The inferior spiritual beings that receive this lower form of Divine radiance also exult with G-d, but on a much milder level.

This process repeats itself endless times for there are myriads and myriads of levels and gradations in heaven. By the time the Divine light reaches our physical world, every vestige of Divinity has been sifted out leaving only what we will term, “spiritual wastage.” This waste takes the form of physical pleasure, it is pleasurable, but there is no sense of Divine awareness in it. In other words, all that’s left of the former ecstatic experience is a glimmer of its pleasure, and none of its G-dliness.

Subtle Worship of Pe’or

Hence, every physical form of pleasure is mere waste compared to the pleasure experienced by souls in heaven. Just like the waste left of food after every nutrient was excised cannot benefit the body and is expelled so does every form of physical pleasure hold no value in heaven and is expelled into our world.

Yet, in His infinite kindness, G-d deposited hidden spiritual gems even in this world. Just as a desperately hungry soul might hunt around in an outhouse to find a discarded apple or carrot so is it possible to hunt around in this world and discover kernels of Divinity. Meet an old woman and help her across the street and you have found one such kernel. Drop into a Synagogue and study Torah when you really want to play baseball with your friends and you have found another such kernel. its all about priorities - innerstreamSay no to the temptation of another beer so you can wake up the next morning and pray with a clear head and you have found a third such kernel. The wise person gravitates to these true pleasures that excite the soul. The fool is drawn only to physical pleasures that are rooted in spiritual wastage.

Gorging on physical pleasures and ignoring spiritual pursuits is akin to rejecting gourmet delicacies to feed on feces in the outhouse, which was the idea behind the bizarre worship of the Pe’or idol. Depositing human waste before the idol was a statement by worshipers that life’s physical pleasures are worthy of worship. And while we don’t worship Pe’or in the modern day one can easily see that in a subtle way we are still guilty of Pe’or. We too tend to skew our priorities by turning spiritual wastage into life-long goals. We too tend to make the unimportant, important, all of which is a subtle form of Pe’or worship. (4)

The Solution

The Midrash concludes by telling us that when the Pe’or ascends before G-d to recount our sin it passes over the nearby grave of Moses, and when it does, it descends again. Moses was buried only till his nostrils, thus every time the Pe’or ascends it falls back to where Moses was buried.

I would like to propose that this curious passage implies that though Moses lived in this world like the rest of us, he didn’t live for this world. He didn’t eat, drink and breathe the pleasures of this world. His nostrils were so to speak above the ground – elevated from immersion in the physical.

The mystics taught that there is a little bit of Moses in every soul and that the Torah leaders of every generation bring out the Moses in each of us. (5) Perhaps the Midrash was telling us that though we can be rather guilty of the subtle form of Pe’or worship, attaching ourselves to the likes of Moses, namely the teachers and practitioners of Torah in each generation, quells the allegation and elevates us to where we ought to be. (6)


  1. Numbers 25:2. See Sifri ibid, Midrash Tanchumah on this Parshah ch. 17 and Bamidbar Rabbah (cited by Rashi) 20: 23 that Jewish men would visit the markets of Midian to purchase flax. The elderly Midianite women, who minded the stores, would invite the men to return the next day for special discounts. When the Jew had returned several times the saleswoman, in a gesture of friendship, invited the Jew to select his own flax in the back of the store. This is where the Jew encountered the young harlot, who plied him with strong wine. Intoxicated, the men propositioned the women, who demanded that they worship the Pe’or first. When the men refused, the women cajoled them by saying that the Pe’or was worshiped through defecation. The Jew then performed his bodily needs before Pe’or, often without realizing that he had been seduced into idolatry.
  2. In his commentary to Numbers 24: 1, Or Hachayim points out that the Jewish men were enticed to sin only because they wandered into the market places and tents of Midianite women. Should they have remained in their own environment they would likely have been spared from this sin. The Midrash, however, blames it literally on the water. The Midrash recounts that for all the years that Jews lived in Egypt they never succumbed to promiscuity, yet here they transgressed because the waters in this place enflamed this particular passion. This follows a philosophy that the foods we eat affect our emotional equilibrium and while some foods cool the body others enflame it. The waters of this place acted like aphrodisiacs that enflamed the human body.
  3. This Midrash is cited by Tosafot in his commentary to Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sotah: 14a. See also Sifri on Numbers 25:13 that Pinchas’ courageous act continues to atone for the sin of Pe’or worship to this very day.
  4. This section of the essay is based on Likutei Sichos v. IV p. 1327. In that text the point is also made that so long as Jews were in the desert they were incapable of making this subtle mistake. Seeing that their food was delivered every day from heaven reminded them that we must live on earth for the sake of heaven. Only upon preparing to enter Israel, where they would be forced to provide for themselves and generate their own sources of sustenance, were they exposed to the risk of focusing too strongly on the needs and pleasures of the body to the exclusion of the soul. Thus we must be especially on guard against this risk when engaged in providing for our financial needs.
  5. Tanya ch. 42.
  6. As noted in footnote #3 this Midrash is recounted by Tosafot in the tractate of Sotah. Tosafot cites this Midrash in response to the Talmudic statement that Moses was buried beside the site where Jews worshiped Pe’or in order t atone for this sin. Tosafot obviously understood this passage to mean that Moses continues to atone for this sin. This could be explained as a reference to the Moses of each generation.