A Shanda for the neighbors.
At the end of the parasha Balak, after we read the oddly humorous yet compelling story of Balak and Balaam, and the talking donkey, we get the first nine verses of Chapter 25 in Bamidbar/Numbers. If you ask me, these should really be attached to the next parasha, since its name is Pinchas, and these verses are about a very dramatic moment starring Pinchas himself. But no.
Scenario: Israelites begin cavorting with Moabite women, and not just cavorting, but engaging in idol worshiping. God gets angry (flared nostrils), tells Moses to take the ringleaders and impale them publicly, as an example to turn away from this behavior, which isn’t exactly what God said to do. God was after the ringleaders, Moses took out after all the men who were cavorting. One of the Israelites, Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, and therefore one of the priestly class, sees this whole thing going on, leaves the group, takes a spear, follows an offending couple into a tent/chamber and skewers them through the belly. A plague was averted, after 24,000 people died. For his act of zealousness, in the next parasha, Pinchas is rewarded with God’s “brit shalom”, pact of peace/friendship/favor because he was zealous for God.
Several questions arise of course. Back in Exodus, when the people were cavorting in front of the Golden Calf, Moses’ reaction was to take charge, crush the gold, mix with water, and make the people drink it. Then, he pleads with God not to destroy the people. Here? Moses raises not a peep against the plague, against God, against the violence. Why didn’t Moses speak up?
What was the big difference in sins, between the Golden Calf and here? Both stories began with the people worshiping an idol, challenging or turning their backs on God. Why did it affect Moses differently, or rather, why did he react differently?
With the Golden Calf, it was just “us” – the Israelites were alone in the wilderness, and their behavior was being seen only by God and Moses. Here, with Pinchas, others viewed the behavior, and it was no longer an internal affair. Maybe Moses felt he needed to take a stronger stand when the Israelites were cavorting among others, not just ourselves.
Do we react differently if those around us act poorly, when it’s in the family, or when out in public? Do we feel that a friend or relative’s behavior reflects on us? Remember how we felt judged when our kids melted down in public, as if it were an indictment of us as parents? How many of us grew up hearing “it’s a shandah for the neighbors” (it’s a shame in from of others) ?
I think we are better off when our actions don’t change, depending on whether we are in the public arena or the private. Ethical behavior is ethical behavior; doing the right thing is doing the right thing, regardless of who’s watching. And kal v’chomer, how much more so, is it crucial to know the difference if one is in the public sphere. Kal v’chomer, indeed.