Zimri ben Salu and The Problem With Tefillin Dates
I was about to write an article about the plague of lewdness that took the Jewish People by storm, ending in Zimri ben Salu dragging a Midianite prostitute into the center of the Jewish encampment, smack in front of the eyes of Moshe (Moses), and finally being brought to justice by the heroic Pinchas.
The problem is that I wonder whether a large segment of my readership even finds the word “lewd” problematic.
The times we are living in reflect a deep callousness to the meaning of intimacy. Physical touch between men and women is entirely taken for granted, but casual contact would be the best of it. I don’t have to become explicit about quite how casual physical relationships have become. Anyone exposed to the very least of American media can see within three seconds (the typical length of a single camera angle) how vulgar our relationship with the entire subject of intimacy has become.
Protesting this disgrace makes orthodox Jewry come off as prudish and repressed, but the truth is exactly the opposite. Shabbos, for example, gets bad press in the secular world for all of its restrictions, but you know what? Those restrictions don’t create a lack of pleasure. They create a space for pleasure, joy, and meaning in an over-busy world.
The same applies to the Torah’s restrictions of casual relationships between men and women. Judaism says that the concept of original sin is bunk. Instead, we believe in a precious, original, and indelible purity that is worth guarding and staying sensitive to. Touch is supposed to mean a very great deal.
Zimri ben Salu completely missed that.
Balaam’s Nefarious Plan
Believe it or not, the Midrash explains that Zimri thought he was doing the Jewish People a favor, or so he justified it to himself. In the immediately preceding parasha, Parashas Balak, Balaam the evil soothsayer tried to curse Israel. To his great chagrin, the words that God made flow from his mouth on the mountaintop were nothing but praise and blessings.
Not willing to let God’s love for the Jewish People get in the way of a good bout of anti-Semitism, Balaam came up with an ingenious plan. If the problem with cursing Israel was their divine merit, Balaam reasoned, than removing their divine merit should pave the way for his original nefarious intentions. Make ‘em sin! Get the Jewish People to behave so crassly, so despicably, that the intimate relationship between them and God would be severed.
As if this Machiavellian scheme weren’t enough, Balaam sat down and mapped out a fail-proof strategy for how to go about it. His strategy worked like this: Build an outdoor mall. Ever been to Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda or Mamilla? Lots of fun, right? Balaam knew that the Jews would have no problem shopping in a clean, modest atmosphere, so he hired elderly Moabite grandmothers to stand at every storefront hawking their wares. Nothing to fear here, see? No licentiousness around.
Even more clever was Balaam’s prior sleuth work. He had gone to the trouble of finding out what the Jewish People needed most: linen. The Jewish People had been commanded to gather linen for a particular mitzvah (commandment), and now the Mall of Moab provided the perfect venue where they could find it. The price was right.
Jewish men would stop at storefronts to examine the products being sold. If they found the products appealing, they would ask the old grandmother saleswomen about the price. Just then, as the Jewish men were considering whether to purchase the appealing product for the proposed price, a higher-pitched voice would ring out from within the shady confines of the inside of the store. A second, much younger saleslady stood in the back of the store offering the same product at a much lower price.
Many Jewish men entered the stores intending to do nothing more than compare products and prices, but the situation tumbled downward from there. The devastating one-two blows of free Midianite prostitution and exciting Moabite idol worship (ritualized child sacrifice, mutilation, and rape included) became the new “in thing”. The other thing that quickly followed these trends “in” was a plague of some sort of illness that ended up killing some 24,000 of the Jewish People. Can you call a spiritually-induced plague an STD?
Zimri’s Crass “Solution”
Anyway, Zimri ben Salu thought he had a solution. Let them go on “tefillin dates”! Since he figured that it was impossible to stop the Jews from sinning with the Midianite women (and besides, from his perspective, who would want to?), at least the sins of idol worship could be avoided by bringing the Midianite women into the Jewish encampment. In simple terms, instead of going to Moabite territory to ruin their lives, Zimri proposed that the Jews ruin their lives right at home.
Pinchas saw right through Zimri’s twisted logic. Allowing Midianite prostitution to take place in the holy Jewish encampment would not stop the destructive behavior, it would encourage it. It would give the behavior a stamp of approval that could only lead to more and more permissive thinking until the holiness of the Jewish encampment was lost completely. An idol would be placed in the Holy of Holies. There would be no safe place.
Of course, the Pinchas plan meant that many of the Jewish People would still end up in Moab. There would be very few righteous individuals left. But those left would be unimpaired. When the broken and crippled of Israel crept back from the slums of Moab seeking succor, those few would be ready and able to provide it and a genuine healing process could begin.
When the Russian Ministry of Education threatened to close the Volozhiner Yeshiva unless they incorporated a few hours of secular studies into their curriculum, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, z”l, stood up at the board meeting and declared that although the Almighty had commanded to educate many students and ensure the transmission of living Torah wisdom from generation to generation, this commandment only applied when it was transmitted to the students the same way it had been transmitted at Sinai: pure, authentic Torah.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan z”l, told this story later with an added caveat. It’s true, he admitted, the yeshiva did close down, but Volozhin’s decision was what saved Torah in that generation. The problem wasn’t with the secular studies per say. Mathematics and medicine aren’t the enemy.
The problem was, explained the Chofetz Chaim, that the forces of evil are very wily. First they turn you away from Torah for only two hours a day. Slowly but surely those two hours grow and expand until the picture flips – and suddenly you find that the only time left for Torah study is two hours. Insidious but true.
And Torah is like water, added Rabbi Kagan. Close up one waterway and the stream finds another path to flow. Volozhin closed but soon other yeshivas opened in other countries. Torah made her way to Lithuania and Poland, staying pure and beautiful every step of the way. The integrity of the importance of Torah learning, and the sanctity of a yeshiva, was never compromised and found other ways to sprout. A yeshiva stayed a yeshiva. Torah stayed Torah. And we retained our “safe place” in a dizzying world.
Love is in the Little Things
Judaism begins and ends with a sensitivity to the little things. Ever seen Hollywood depict that first touch? A current of electricity runs through our veins because we all know that Hollywood – and Torah – have got it right on that one. The little things are not really little things. Life is in the details. The details of Torah say, “Hey! It’s time to really start living!”
The converse is also true. Give up the little things, all those nifty, detailed little Jewish laws, and you’re left with cultural Judaism. Bagels and lox only get you so far – and not very far at all. They certainly won’t score you a profound relationship with God. With your spouse. With your friends. With your kids. With yourself.
What Zimri’s plan seemed to say was, “So what’s a little compromise? Big deal. It’s better than nothing.” But the truth is that a little compromise is a lot of apathy. True love goes all the way.
Because it means something. It means everything.