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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 3 Apr 2020 06:52 PM and ends Sat 4 Apr 2020 07:50 PM

Letting it all hang out

כ' תמוז ה' אלפים תש"ע

Parsha Dvar Torah - Parshat Pinchas

There are many ‘good bits’ in the torah; soul-stirring descriptions of ancestral nobility and grandeur, thought-provoking passages of Divine instruction and evocative imagery of national intent but there are relatively few moments as calculated to appeal to the immature sniggers of pre-adolescent boys as the section about Ba’al Peor.

Ba’al Peor was an ancient idol, popular with the Moavites, whose method of worship included various sensual indulgences and wanton sexual acts. This seems exciting enough, but what really piques the imagination were a particular set of practices that was unique to Peor worshippers: as part of their service they would strip off their clothes and defecate in their god’s honour!

I remember as a boy being simultaneously titillated and disgusted by the descriptions of Ba’al Peor. Even thinking about it now, it just seems so absurd. What on earth were they thinking? This is divine worship? This is how they pay homage to what they believe to be god? To our modern sensibilities it seems weird enough to contemplate the fact that people once used to seriously genuflect and pray to an idol; an inanimate block of stone, but to seriously believe that you are serving some religious purpose by voiding oneself in front of your object of veneration surely takes absurdity to new heights.

The Talmudic sages attempted to reconstruct how this most peculiar mode of worship evolved. Originally, or so it seems, Peor was just an ordinary idol-worshipping cult, competing in the Canaanite marketplace of ideas with a host of other ideologies and lifestyle choices. However, distinguishing themselves from their peers, the devotees of Peor soon won renown for their dedication and commitment to their idol. They prayed at length with incredible devotion, often losing all sense of time and place. This disconnect from physical reality, coupled with their crushing sense of submission to their deity would occasionally lead to the unintended consequence of loss of bowel control.

It is difficult to accurately transmit an ideology from one generation to the next. The youngsters watching on saw their elder’s actions but misinterpreted the intent. Rather than emulate the spiritually directed devotion of their parents, their ‘worship’ soon degenerated into wanton behavior, motivated by purely selfish desires and the puerile pursuit of pleasure. In a sop to their parent’s religiosity, they kept up the superficial manifestations of their ancestor’s prayers but disregarded the original function. It’s as if they kept the dross and discarded the real deal.

It’s easy to mock the ancient idol worshippers for their misplaced emphasis on style over substance, but how many of us make similar mistake in our personal lives.

Just a few examples spring readily to mind. There was an old truism that “Jews don’t drink, but they do make L’Chaim”. In previous generations they would enjoy a quick schnapps after davening or a toast around the Kiddush table. It would warm their insides and put them in the mood to get closer to G-d. They rarely over-indulged and it was only ever a tiny factor in their overall journey towards religiosity. 

Nowadays, unfortunately, too many of us imbibe too often. From being a tool in our service of Hashem, mashke has become a purpose in and of itself. We see young kids having their stomachs pumped after Purim and even older people, who should know better, are too frequently the worse for wear. Like the worshippers of Peor we have accentuated that which is superficial at the expense of that which is real.

Let me give another example of our misplaced enthusiasm. 50-60 years ago, life was much tougher for the average bread-winner. Most of our community was poor, having only recently arrived in this country post-Holocaust and eager to begin building a future for their families. People worked incredibly hard, putting in long hours at low paying jobs, scrimping and saving to start small businesses and dragging themselves up the ladder of opportunity.

I know people who worked 16-hour days for decades, leaving home before the kids were up in the morning and arriving back, totally exhausted, well after the rest of the family had long gone to bed. They sacrificed their health for those very children who, ironically, saw so little of their parents as they were growing up.

It is a different era we live in now, with different challenges. Many of those struggling entrepreneurs created something out of nothing and left a legacy of relative luxury to their children. The second generation became professionals, with law and medical school fees paid for by their proud parents and grandparents.  People can now well afford to cut back and spend more time at home and in synagogue.

But so many people still spend so much time away from their true priorities. Either as workaholics; blindly dedicated to their businesses and clients, at the expense of their family life, or wasting countless hours at the casino or golf course. It’s almost as if we are unconsciously imitating the home life of our ancestors, without matching their sense of obligation to the future.

While children of previous generations understood that daddy’s true motivation for his all too frequent absence from home was his commitment to family, the kids of today may well see themselves as abandoned by parents who would rather be anywhere else than spending time with their children.

If that’s not Ba’al Peor then what is?

The lesson we can learn from the ridiculous behavior of the devotees of Peor, is to work out that which is really important in life and live for that, ignoring all distractions and focusing on that which is essential. Don’t blindly follow without understanding and make sure you appreciate the true motivation for past practices.

Our parents and ancestors blazed a path for us through life and it is our responsibility to follow them safely onto the king’s highway without deviating onto dead-end streets of lost opportunity and senseless misbehavior.

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