Aside from occasionally stashing an iPod in my sports bra while working out, I’ve never found my boobs a particularly convenient cache for goods. Nor do I imagine anything larger than an iPod would make for swift and graceful recovery in a moment of passion. Which is why I laughed aloud at both the Talmud and Rashi when I read their explanations of the last chapter of this week’s parshah, Balak.
Chapter 25 of Bamidbar (Numbers) reads, “while Israel was staying with Shittim, the people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god. The people partook of them and worshipped that god. Thus Israel attached itself to Baal-peor, and the Lord was incensed with Israel. The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the ringleaders and have them publicly impaled before the Lord, so that the Lord’s wrath may turn away from Israel.’ So Moses said to Israel’s officials, ‘Each of you slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-peor” (Numbers 25:1-5).
From this, Rashi extrapolated the methods a Moabite woman employed to lure one of the Israelite men into the clutches of her pagan god. “When his urge overcame him,” Rashi writes, “and he said, ‘submit to me,’ she took out an image of Peor from her bosom and said, ‘bow down before this.”
The Talmud offers greater detail. “So he [Balak, the Moabite King] erected curtained tents from the snowy mountain (Hermon) as far as Beth ha-Yeshimoth, and placed harlots in them – old women on the outside, young women within. And when an Israelite ate, drank, and was merry, and issued for a stroll in the market place, the old woman would say to him, ‘do you desire linen garments?’ The old woman offered it at its current value, but the young one for less. This happened two or three times. After that she would say to him, ‘you are not like one of the family; sit down and choose for yourself.’ Gourds of Ammonite wine lay near her, and at that time Ammonite and heathen wine had not yet been forbidden. She said to him: ‘would you like to drink a glass of wine?’ Having drunk, his passion was inflamed and he exclaimed to her, ‘yield to me!’ Thereupon she brought forth an idol from her bosom and said to him, ‘worship this” (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 106a).
Both of these scenarios strike me as hilariously absurd. If the scene were played out on stage, I imagine it would elicit booming guffaws from the audience. Yet, the Rabbis were determined to invent some kind of nefarious snare to explain the Israelites’ defection from their faith. They cast the only women mentioned in this parshah as scheming pariahs using their sexuality as a weapon against God’s chosen people. As learned, wise and righteous as our sages surely were, in their midrashim they take enormous effort to excuse the Israelites and find a convenient scapegoat for their poor decisions.
In this, I am reminded of the recent #yesallwomen campaign which set fire to Twitter and other social media sites following the misogyny-fueled rampage of Elliot Rodger. Yes, all women experience gender-based harassment in some form at some point in their lives. Yes, all women know what victim-blaming feels like, even when we may not be able to consciously recognize it for what it is. Whatever motivated the women of Moab, they are not responsible for the actions of Israelite men. These men were afforded numerous opportunities to recognize the undeniable power of HaShem, and yet they chose to turn their backs on their God and their people. Their actions are their responsibility alone.
I love discovering stories of women in the Torah. Whether they are righteously saving newborn boys from slaughter, navigating the pain of infertility, or advocating for their rightful inheritance, I read an unbreakable sisterhood in their stories. I hear my own voice in theirs, and see our journeys inextricably woven together. Not every parshah offers this opportunity, and I must admit I was disappointed by this week’s reading. Although a number of thrilling and downright magical events take place, it just didn’t speak to me. So, I looked for the women and sought our sages’ perspectives.
For our holy texts to remain vibrant and relevant, we must be able to see ourselves in them. Certain elements of the Torah may mirror our own lives. Specific passages may echo the wanderings of our thoughts and cadence of our hearts. At other times, finding ourselves in our Torah is not so easy. In those places where we cannot recognize ourselves readily, we are confronted with three options –dismiss the text as irrelevant and outdated, determine its applicability for someone else, or reveal a sparkling interpretation of Torah that only we as individuals can manifest.
I read this parshah through the lens of my own experience. I relay messages about personal responsibility, a little humor, and maybe add some feminist sensibility to the mix. The Torah I reveal is uniquely my own, yet a meaningful contribution to our ever emergent Jewish tradition. When encountering portions of our book that may not initially speak to our souls, or reflect our own stories, we are gifted a beautiful opportunity to bring ourselves to the text. When we do, we enrich the chronicle of our people with something no one else can provide. You may read parashat Balak and be reminded of your advocacy against animal abuse, or think of your best friend in sixth grade who declared herself Wiccan and shared all sorts of spells. You may find yourself considering current conflicts in the Middle East, or reflecting on your company’s strategies to trounce the competition. Within you lives a Torah only you can unveil. Together, we are investing in a sisterhood that stretches behind and before us, infinitely. Finding ourselves bored or disinterested is an invitation for a deeper dive. Instead of viewing our exclusion as an impenetrable barrier, we gain far more when we see it as an open door.
Akiva Yael is an enthusiastic participant in all that is holy, including Torah study, powerlifting, and the beauty of our world.