A Continuing Offense

A man went into confession to divulge that he had rescued a young Jewish boy from the Nazis. “Why that sounds like a good deed, why do you bring it up in confession?” asked the priest. “Because,” explained the man, “I put the boy to work doing small errands and menial tasks.” “Well, that isn’t so terrible,” replied the priest, “considering that you fed and clothed him.” “Yes,” agreed the man, “but must I inform him that the war is over?”

There are onetime offenses for which we repent and never think of again. Then there are continued or repeated offenses for which we must continue to answer. If a wife once worked to prepare dietetic foods for her husband and he noshed behind her back, she has reason to be upset once. Bringing it up ten years later makes no sense . . . unless he continues to nosh.

The Recurring Allegation

Shortly before they entered the land of Israel, the Jews succumbed to the terrible sins of promiscuity and idolatry. The Midianite women enticed the Jewish men to their tents and in the heat of passion coerced them into worshiping an Idol called Pe’or.12 The resulting Divine punishment took the form of a plague and 24,000 Jews died before the plague was lifted.

One assumes this was a onetime affair for which our nation was punished and then forgiven. Yet we are treated to a fascinating Midrashic account. The Midrash teaches that every year, on the anniversary of this episode, the Pe’or idol ascends before G‑d to recount this sin.3 That it is recounted every year implies that we continue to commit this sin. But in what way are we guilty of idol worship?

Filtering Out the Light

To understand this we must first understand the nature of this idol. Whereas most idols are worshiped by an act of reverence, Pe’or was worshiped by depositing the body’s waste before it. Strange as it may seem, this crude manner of worship was actually based on sophisticated metaphysical logic.

Human waste is what’s left of our food after the digestive system sifts out all the nutritious elements and incorporates them into the body. The leftover waste is of no use to us and is expelled. A similar process takes place above. There are angels that function as the divine digestive system. This is not to imply that G‑d generates waste. It means rather that the angels filter out the lofty emanations from the Divine radiance, reserving it for heaven and allowing only the lowly and inferior lights to fall to earth.

G‑d wanted to give His creations, spiritual and physical, a gift. The greatest gift He could possibly bestow was Himself, and so G‑d revealed Himself to his creations. The spiritual beings that receive the gift of this revelation revel in it; their very essence melts in ecstasy and delights in this rarefied pleasure.

Yet one must be on a lofty level to assimilate this proximity to G‑d. Those spiritual beings that are incapable of absorbing the highly intense and magnified spiritual experience would be overwhelmed by it. In fact, they might expire and cease to exist. Hence the heavenly digestive system: Angels sift through the Divine radiance and skim off the loftiest dimensions, leaving a milder form for those below them. The inferior spiritual beings that receive this lower form of divine radiance also exult and revel in it, but on a smaller scale.

This process repeats itself endless times ,for there are myriads and myriads of levels and gradations in heaven. By the time the Divine light reaches our physical world, every vestige of Divinity has been sifted out, leaving only what we will term, “spiritual waste.” This waste takes the form of physical pleasure. It is pleasurable, but there is no sense of Divine awareness in it. In other words, all that’s left of the former ecstatic experience is a glimmer of its pleasure, with none of its G‑dliness.

Subtle Worship of Pe’or

Hence, every physical form of pleasure is mere waste compared to the pleasure experienced by souls in heaven. Just like the waste left of food after every nutrient was extracted cannot benefit the body and is expelled, so does physical pleasure hold no value in heaven and is expelled into our world.

Yet, in His infinite kindness, G‑d deposited hidden spiritual gems even in this world. With a bit of effort, one may discover those kernels of Divinity. Meet an old woman and help her across the street and you have found one such kernel. Drop into a synagogue and study Torah when you really want to play baseball with your friends and you have found another such kernel. Say no to the temptation of another beer so you can wake up the next morning and pray with a clear mind and you have found a third such kernel. The wise person gravitates to these true pleasures that excite the soul. The fool is drawn only to physical pleasures that are rooted in spiritual waste.

Gorging on physical pleasures and ignoring spiritual pursuits is akin to rejecting gourmet delicacies to feed on feces in the outhouse. This was the idea behind the bizarre worship of the Pe’or idol. Depositing human waste before the idol was a statement by worshipers that life’s physical pleasures are worthy of worship. And while we may not engage in explicit idol worship, one can easily see that in a subtle way, we are still guilty of worshipping Pe’or. We too tend to turn spiritual waste into life-long goals. We too tend to make the unimportant important, all of which is a subtle form of Pe’or worship.4

The Solution

The Midrash concludes by telling us that when the Pe’or ascends before G‑d to recount our sin it passes over the nearby grave of Moses, and when it does, it descends again. Moses was buried only till his nostrils, thus every time the Pe’or ascends it sees Moses and falls back to where Moses was buried.

Perhaps this curious passage implies that, though Moses lived in this world like the rest of us, he didn’t live for this world. He didn’t eat, drink and breathe the pleasures of this world. His nostrils were, so-to-speak, above the ground – elevated from immersion in the physical.

The mystics taught that there is a little bit of Moses in every soul and that the Torah leaders of every generation bring out the Moses in each of us.5 Perhaps the Midrash was telling us that though we can be rather guilty of the subtle form of Pe’or worship, attaching ourselves to the likes of Moses, namely the teachers and practitioners of Torah in each generation, quells the allegation and elevates us to where we ought to be.6