Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the tent of Meeting.
- Numbers 25:6

While encamped across the Jordan River from Jericho, the Israelites encounter another group of people living among the Moabites. The Midianites are well-known to Moses who, as a young man prior to the exodus, took refuge among them after discovering that word had spread to others of the murder he committed in Egypt. Moses remained among the Midianites for [a] long time after that (Ex 2:23), marrying, Zipporah, with whom he has two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, and tending the flock of sheep owned by his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian. Moses enjoys a peaceful, stable life among the Midianites until God speaks to him from the burning bush at Mount Horeb and directs him to return to Egypt.

Many years later, Moses leads his human flock, the Israelites, to a place where Midianites are living as a minority. The Midianite elders have aligned themselves with the Moabites elders and their king who are hostile to this people that came out of Egypt (Num 22:5), this horde (Num 22:3) that hides the earth from view (Num 22:5). Still, the Israelites are attracted to the Midianites perhaps much as Moses himself once was. Through them, the men are introduced to Moabite women who worship the local incarnation of the Canaanite fertility storm-deity, Baal, often represented as a calf. They soon fall back into practices that proved calamitous at Sinai. God, enraged, directs Moses who in turns orders Israel’s leaders to slay those of his men who attached themselves to Baal-Peor (Num 25:5).

A couple enters in the midst of the people’s response to the plague that is suddenly upon them and has already caused thousands more deaths. The Israelite man is Zimri, the son of Salu, a Simeonite leader. Indicative of her high status, the woman is also named. Cozbi is the daughter of a man of similar importance among the Midianites (Num 26:14-15). The two are stabbed and killed by one of their peers, Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas. The text loudly hints that Cozbi and Zimri are speared through their genitals while intimately engaged in the inner chamber of the tent (Num 25:8).

Moses witnesses the couple’s approach, but remains silent before and after their deaths. What was he thinking? Our Sages teach that just before Phinehas acted, Moses was asked, “Son of Amram, is [this woman] forbidden or permitted (zo asurah o muteret)? If you say, “forbidden”, who permitted Jethro’s daughter to you?” Moses, temporarily dumbstruck, is unable to speak or act (Rashi based on BT Sanhedrin 82a). What can he say or do? As the adopted son of an Egyptian princess, he himself married the daughter of Midian’s priest. They had children together prior to any possible conversion.

By focusing on Phinehas’ dramatic act of zealotry, it is easy to miss the compassion that God shows toward Moses in this moment of personal and communal crisis. There is no rebuke. Rather, God reassures Moses that his leadership remains valid, first by directing him to convey to Phinehas his reward for assuaging God’s anger towards Israel and then preparing Moses mentally to lead the Israelites in a justifiable war against the Midianites.

Like Moshe Rabbeinu, we may find ourselves in situations where we are asked to judge others even as we know that our past behavior and present circumstances lead in different directions. We, too, can be temporarily paralyzed by the inner conflict. May we merit God’s compassion when this happens to us. May we adhere to the commandment, Acharei Adonay Aloheikhem teileikhu (Follow Adonai your God. – Deut. 13:5) when we see it in others whether it is in some aspect of kashrut or another matter.

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