Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Burghers of Israel?

This week in shul we discussed whom God wanted to be killed because of the incident at Ba'al Peor. See Bamidbar Ch.25 below. What do you think is the pshat of the text? Who did God intend to be killed in verse 4?

Tanach - Bamidbar (Numbers) Chapter 25:

1. And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. 2. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. 3. And Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. 4. And the Lord said to Moses, Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them up before the Lord in the sun, that the fierce anger of the Lord may be turned away from Israel. 5. And Moses said to the judges of Israel, Slay you every one his men who were attached to Baal-Peor.

Moshe in verse 5 requests that all the people who were attached to Baal-Peor be killed by the judges of Israel. This perhaps is what influences Rashi to suggest that the "them" in verse 4, was not the chiefs of the people themselves, but those who transgressed (See Rashi Below).

Rashi Bamidbar 25:4

Take all the heads of Israel-- to Judge the worshippers of Peor
And hang them-- the worshippers

It's a clever read because Rashi explains that God does not want Moshe to take the leaders of Israel to be killed, but to take the leaders of Israel and have them be judges of the wrongdoing of others. If it is the leaders who are to be killed, this suggests a direct and intense responsibility of the leaders for the conduct of the people. If it is the people themselves who are to be killed, then it broadens the system to make the people responsible for their own actions.

Do you think that Moshe cleverly interpreted God, participating in the rabbinic method of exegesis, or do you think that Moshe understood even from God's unclear grammatical referents what was to be done?

If you think it is outrageous to suggest that God would want the leaders to be killed because of the sins of the people, you are in disagreement with R. Yudan in the Midrash below (You are in good company because R. Nehemiah does this). Given that at least one rabbi from the Midrash reads it this way suggests that it is not so far fetched:

Bamidbar Rabbah (Vilna Editition) 20:23:

AND THE LORD SAID UNTO MOSES: TAKE ALL THE CHIEFS OF THE PEOPLE, AND HANG THEM UP (XXV, 4). R. Yudan says: He hanged the chiefs of the people because they had not checked the people. R. Nehemiah says: He did not hang the chiefs of the people. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses: Appoint for them heads of Sanhedrin who shall judge all those who had gone to Peor. Said Moses to Him: ' Who will make the culprits known? ' ' I shall expose them, said He. If any one has erred the cloud will depart from him and the sun will shine upon him in the midst of the assembly, so that all will know who it is that has gone astray and will hang him. There is proof that this was so, from the text, AND MOSES SAID UNTO THE JUDGES OF ISRAEL: SLAY YE EVERY
ONE HIS MEN, etc. (ib. 5).

There are two competing ideologies playing out here, perhaps one being represented by the will of God and the other by the interpretation of the will of God by Moshe. Moshe was practical; God sometimes impulsive. But it goes to show that the expectations of God are great. In his exegesis, Moshe helped to further establish the system we have today where each person is responsible for his or her own Judaism. At the same time, it is clear that God expects the leaders of the community to take very seriously their task of guidance.

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