Bystanders sin

     FROM RABBI BRADLEY SHAVIT ARTSON                    A Torah that Mirrors Real Life

                                                Torah Reading:  Numbers 25:10 - 30:1

After the Israelites sin at Baal-Pe'or, God lashes out in anger, ordering Moses to "Take all the leaders of the people and have them publicly impaled." Before Moses can act on God's command, a leading Israelite named Zimri and a leading Midianite woman named Cozbi enter the sacred site of the Tent of Meeting and there, before the entire people, begin to copulate.

This arrogant escalation of sin inflames Pinhas, the leader of the Levitical guards, who grabs a spear and impales the two sinners.

While most modern readers are shocked and appalled by the bloodshed of this scenario, even more horrifying is God's response: The bestowal of an eternal pact of friendship (brit shalom) to Pinhas and his heirs.

Why would God mandate the death of all the leaders, innocent and guilty alike? And why would God reward Pinhas for a violent and impulsive act of killing?

Jewish tradition offers small comfort to those in search of only sweetness and elevation from religion. Unlike other religious traditions that emphasize only the positive, or that seek to uplift by focusing only on the sublime and the beautiful, Judaism has always adhered to the reality principle: Religion must illumine life as it actually happens, not some saccharine edited version that would be useless in times of trouble.

Life can be bloody and unfair. Violence can sweep out of control and take the lives of innocent in a twinkling. We have but to scan the daily paper to read of innocents killed along with the guilty. So, in reality, our problem with the story of Pinhas is not that it doesn't resemble real life enough, but that it reflects reality too faithfully.

The truth is that we do live in a world in which the innocent often pay for the deeds of the guilty. The Torah understood that truth, and because of that insight, provides stories and leaders capable of providing wisdom and guidance in the storms life can bring. The challenge of the Torah is the challenge of looking at life without blinders.

The Rabbis understood as well. The Mekhilta, (3rd Century Israel), and ancient Midrash to Exodus, comments that "once permission has been given to the 'destroyer' to do injury, it no longer discriminates between the innocent and the guilty." Once violence is unleashed, even if it originally was directed against evil, it cannot be directed with any pretense of precision. That insight is only to clear from a history of just wars and their innocent victims.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua made a similar point in Sifre Ba-Midbar: "As it is impossible for a doornail to be taken out from the door without extracting some of the wood, so it is impossible for Israel to separate itself from [Baal-] Pe'or without losing souls." Because human beings live in society together, the good and the innocent regularly pay for the sins and the selfishness of the wicked.

Our tradition records another explanation for God's condemnation of all the leaders of Israel at Baal-Peor: In Ba-Midbar Rabbah, Rabbi Judah insists that all of Israel's leaders share the responsibility for the sin of Baal-Peor by virtue of their authority. If they had been truly righteous and diligent leaders, the Israelites would not have been tempted to sin.

Rabbi Maller adds that while not all of the leaders of the people sinned, those who did not sin did not openly oppose the evil. They just stood by hoping that others would act. Thus all the leaders of Israel violated two of the Torah's most important Mitsvot; "Do not follow a crowd to do evil" (Exodus 23:2) and "Do not stand by while your neighbor bleeds." (Leviticus 19:16) These Mitsvot apply to all Jews in a democracy; and to all the leaders of every community in all societies.

In a democracy where all of us have the power to vote and to lead, we become responsible for the sins of our own society. The gap between rich and poor, the staggering rate of teen pregnancy and child poverty, violence against ethnic, religious, or sexual minorities, bias against women, pollution--all these are our responsibility because we allow them to continue.

The violence of Baal-Pe'or, then, is a clarion call to become involved. Either we are part of the solution or part of the problem. The Torah reveals a picture of real life, a portrait designed to empower us to realize holiness in the world. We can close the scrolls and try to keep our eyes closed, our ears plugged or act as God wants us to act.