Israel settled in Shittim, and the people began to stray after the daughters of Moab. They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods . . . and Israel joined themselves to Baal Peor . . .

Numbers 25:1–3

What was the cult of Peor? The Talmud relates the following story:

There was once a gentile woman who was very ill, and who vowed: “If I recover from my illness, I will go and worship every idol in the world.” She recovered, and proceeded to worship every idol in the world. When she came to Peor, she asked its priests: “How is this one worshipped?” Said they to her: “One eats greens and drinks beer, and then one defecates before the idol.” Said she: “I’d rather return to my illness than worship an idol in such a manner.” (Talmud, Sanhedrin 64a)

Idolatry is the deification of an object or force of the created reality. Ancient man worshipped the sun because it kept him warm, lighted his way and nurtured his crops; the moon, wind, earth, water and trees were also gods, to be thanked and beseeched for the gifts they bestowed upon man. This was like thanking a hammer for building a home, or a scythe for the year’s harvest, rather than the manufacturer and wielder of these tools; nevertheless, every idolatry has a certain logic, however misguided—one is venerating a (presumed) source of life and nourishment.

But what was the point of the idolatry of Peor, which is the worship of one’s own excrement? Here the idolater is venerating waste—that which remains after all nutritive potential has been extracted from a substance. What would attract a people to such a practice?

The Chain

The chassidic masters explain that the essence of Peor is the severing of pleasure from its supernal root.

What is pleasure? We use the word in relation to so many and diverse things. What do a steak, a musical composition and an idea have in common? Pleasure is how we describe our experience of a meal, a concert or an intellectual revelation. For as different as the sensations derived from these activities may be, they share a common essence: the capacity to impart a sense of fulfillment to the human soul.

Indeed, all pleasures flow from the same font. According to the teachings of Kabbalah, all pleasures are one in essence, and this quintessential Pleasure is the soul of creation.

The Kabbalists describe the created reality as a chain of evolution (seder hishtalshelut). The uppermost link in this chain is G‑d’s pleasure in His creation, which spawns the divine desire to create. Thus Pleasure (ta’anug) and Desire (ratzon) are, respectively, the inner and outer elements of the highest sefirah (divine attribute), keter.

This divine desire, enfolding the divine pleasure within it, then passes through many stages and metamorphoses, evolving into worlds and realities of increased tactility. Every object, force or phenomenon in creation is simply another form of the genesic divine desire; the differences between them lie only in the manner and extent of their evolution. The higher a thing’s place in the chain, the greater its awareness of its source; it is therefore more spiritual—more subservient to the divine will, less possessive of a sense of being and self. The further down it passes through the chain, the more distant it becomes from its source—less aware and subservient, more tactual and egocentric, more physical.

When a person experiences desire and pleasure towards and from a thing in G‑d’s creation, he is making contact with its soul and core—the divine desire that it be, and the divine pleasure in its being. Hence, the degree and intensity of the pleasure is governed by the thing’s place in the “chain”: the more spiritual a thing is, the more profound the pleasure it yields, for it is closer to the source of all pleasure. The ultimate pleasure lies in the experience of union with G‑d through the fulfillment of His will—an experience that relates to the very first link in the chain, where pleasure resides in its most pristine, unprocessed form.

Pleasure As Displeasure

In its lowest reaches, the chain of evolution yields things that are inconducive—or even contrary—to what G‑d desires.

The capacity of these things to give pleasure is an existential paradox. All pleasure is but the embodiment of the divine pleasure in creation, while these pleasures are divine displeasures—things contrary to G‑d’s will. Yet they, too, are products of the divine desire, since their capacity to give pleasure fills a certain function in G‑d’s purpose in creation: G‑d desired that we be confronted with a free choice between good and evil so that our deeds should be meaningful and significant. But G‑d wants that these things should exist only in order that man should reject them as contrary to His will; so theirs is an existence whose inner essence—whose function and raison d’être—is not to exist.

Chassidic teaching employs the metaphor of digestion to explain this phenomenon.

Digestion is the process by which food passes through the various organs which break it down and separate its finer elements from its coarser ones. At each phase of the process, this separation grows more and more defined; ultimately, the finer elements in the food evolve into body-building cells and energy, and its coarser elements are ejected by the body. Both the nutrients and the waste are products of the digestion process; but the former is generated to be used, while the latter is generated to be rejected and thereby enable the body’s absorption of the former.

By the same token, the chain of evolution is like a cosmic “digestive system” in which the essence of creation is processed into the substance and energy of the universe that G‑d desired. This process (like every process we know) also generates waste—elements that must be separated and disposed of in order for the desirable product to properly develop.

(Of course, G‑d could have evolved His world in such a manner that the good develops without any separation of waste; or, for that matter, He could have not evolved it at all. But G‑d desired that the good in creation should be all the more sharply defined by its contrast with the rejected evil; that human life should be an exercise in refinement—in distinguishing between the calories of divine energy and the sludge of putrid waste in our own self and character, our environment and our world. Indeed, the very concept of good, as we know it, would be devoid of all meaning were it not for the challenge of rejecting the evil that vies for validation and indulgence.)

Based on the above, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains the following incident related in the Talmud:

Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were traveling, when they heard the sounds of the crowds of Rome from a distance of one hundred and twenty mil. They began to weep, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Said they to him: “Why are you laughing?”

Said he to them: “Why are you weeping?”

Said they to him: “These barbarians, who prostrate themselves before statues and sacrifice to idols, dwell happy and secure, while we—the footstool of our G‑d [i.e., the Holy Temple in Jerusalem] was consumed by fire. Shall we not weep?”

Said he to them: “That is why I am laughing. If for those who transgress His will it is so, how much more so is it for those who do His will.” (Talmud, Makkot 24a–b)

Rabbi Akiva is saying: if the waste produced by the divine desire in creation can yield such pleasure for the hedonist, imagine the pleasure to be derived through the fulfillment of His will, which is the source and essence of all pleasure!

In the Fortieth Year

Therein lies the deeper significance of the idolatry of Peor, and the explanation as to how and why the people of Israel succumbed to it on the eve of their entry into the Land of Israel.

On the face of it, the worship of Peor was a particularly repulsive activity. In truth, however, this was but the physical enactment of what a person does every time he prefers an unG‑dly “pleasure” over a G‑dly one: he is worshipping the offal of creation, venerating something whose only significance is its need to be rejected in favor of the energies that are extracted from it.

This is why Israel’s vulnerability to Peor came about at the close of their forty-year sojourn in the desert, as they camped on the eastern bank of the Jordan River poised to enter and settle the land of Canaan.

For forty years, the people of Israel had enjoyed a wholly spiritual existence. They were fed, clothed and sheltered by daily miracles, leaving them free to pursue the divine wisdom of Torah without the distractions of the material state. Most telling of their state was the fact that the manna, the “bread from heaven” on which they lived, was wholly absorbed by their bodies, engendering no waste. They inhabited a spiritual idyll, in which the waste of creation was unknown.

But now they stood at the threshold of a new era: they were to settle the land, till its soil, engage in commerce and politics—i.e., to live a physical life sustained by physical means. For the first time in their history as a nation, they were to be in direct contact with the nether levels of the chain of evolution—with that part of the cosmic digestive tract which separates the waste from the body of creation. For the first time, they were called upon to differentiate between vital matter (matter that nourishes a spiritual end) and dead matter (matter as an end in itself).

Not all were equal to the challenge. There was an outbreak of Peor worship in the Israelite camp, as many were enticed by the pseudo-pleasures to be found in the undesirable byproducts of creation. Until one man—Pinchas—came, and with his selfless commitment, unclouded vision and decisive action, put a halt to the plague of Peor.