Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 30 June 2018 / 17 Tammuz 5778

Parshat Balak

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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D.A.: District Attorney or Divine Agent?

In many ways, the sin of Baal Pe’or is the most odious of the many committed by the people in the wilderness. The timing — right after the miraculous defeat of the mighty kings Sichon and Og, leaving no obstacles left to enter the promised Land, and the content — unabashed licentiousness combined with a most abhorrent form of idol worship consisting of defecating before the idol, both contributed to the severity of this catastrophe. The sheer number of those killed (24,000 as opposed to the 3,000 after the sin of the golden calf) also attests to its crushing reprehensibility. But there is yet another, more subtle aspect of this chapter, which casts a further web of shame.

Jewish criminal law is based entirely on the process of indictment. The court has no authority to act on its own initiative if there is no accuser. Unlike criminal law as we know it, there is no publicly appointed prosecutor, no district attorney on behalf of the state. Instead, the entire nation acts as the prosecutor, on behalf of the Torah.

A criminal sentence could be issued only under specific, stringent circumstances: 1) Two men must have warned the sinner of the prohibition and of the punishment attached to it. 2) Despite the warnings, the individual committed the crimes within a very short amount of time. 3) The same men who warned him must bring the criminal to court, and by testifying, in the name of the Torah, demand that he receive the punishment due him.

But in this instance, no one warned, and no one brought the sinners to court. Because there were no willing prosecutors or witnesses, the judges had no legal authority to adjudicate. This very fact elicited G-d’s anger; for in this widespread open defection from Torah, no men intervened to warn the offenders, apprehend them, and bring them to court in order to prevent the spread of the evil. This implicated every passive onlooker as an accessory to the crime, inviting blame to the entire nation. In response, G-d instructed Moshe, in a temporary suspension of legal procedure, to bring the offenders to justice himself.

The language used here sheds light on the purpose of carrying out criminal punishment in the first place: the men are to be hanged for G-d, in the presence of the sun. The entire procedure must be done by daylight. It does not have a dark, vindictive spirit; rather, by removing criminals from the earth, the nation affirms the depravity of the sin, and reestablishes its commitment to purity and their G-dly mission.

Next week, we will examine the acts of one Pinchas, who well understood this mission and acted for the honor of G-d and the honor of Torah.

  • Source: Commentary Bamidbar 25:4

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