“And the nation began to stray with the daughters of Moab. They called to the nation to serve their idols, and the nation ate and bowed to their gods” (Bamidbar 25:1-2).
The Moabite people greatly feared the Jewish nation. Their king, Balak, sent ambassadors to Bilaam, a gentile prophet, to entice him to curse the Jews. Bilaam agreed, but his efforts were futile. Time after time, he tried to curse the Jews but instead found himself blessing them against his will.
Finally, Bilaam said to Balak, “I can’t curse them, but let me offer you advice. Their god hates illicit relations. If your women seduce the Jewish men, their god will grow angry at them and remove His protection, and you’ll be able to defeat them.”
So the Moabite women set out to seduce the Jewish men. Unfortunately, many succumbed and were even persuaded to serve Moabite idols as well. It was one of the lowest points in Jewish history.
There is a fundamental question that must be asked about Bilaam. A prophet is a person who has reached an extremely high level of spiritual development. Even after many years of focusing on spiritual perfection, only a select few merit Divine revelation. Bilaam had not achieved these spiritual heights; on the contrary, he is known as “Bilaam the rasha (wicked).” Why, then, was he granted prophecy?
Rashi (22:5) explains that Hashem knew the gentiles might complain: “The Jewish people were righteous because you gave them prophets who set them on the right path. Had we had prophets, we too would have been virtuous.” By making Bilaam a prophet Hashem would be able to reply, “I gave you a prophet, and instead of leading you on a righteous path, he led you astray.”
The Moabite women had been faithful to their husbands. Only after Bilaam’s prophetic advice did they engage in illicit relations. Thus, instead of helping them become virtuous, Bilaam led them to sin.
While Rashi’s explanation enlightens us about why God would grant prophecy to someone like Bilaam, it raises another question. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz points out that the Moabites served Baal Peor, an idol worshipped through defecation. They served it in such a depraved manner because this god represented the complete removal of all moral restrictions. If the Moabite religion, though, amounted to a rejection of morality, why were Moabite women chaste until Bilaam’s prophecy?
The answer can be understood based on a review of some history. In 1910, Layne Bryant, a successful manufacturer of maternity clothes, approached a number of local New York papers to purchase ad space. The New York Times, New York Herald, and nearly every other paper, though, refused to run his ads because showing an image of a pregnant woman was considered a gross violation of propriety. Today, of course, The New York Times publishes ads depicting far worse than pregnant women wearing long flowing dresses, violating standards of decency in glaring fashion.
From the early 1900s until today, the state of morality in America has deteriorated at a baffling pace. A century ago, the average woman wore sleeves down to her wrists and skirts down to her ankles. Our most religious Bais Yaakov graduates would be put to shame by the modest dress of the average woman of that time.
What has changed? The simple reality is that women in those days dressed modestly because there was a prevailing sense of propriety and self-respect. A dignified woman wouldn’t go out in the streets in all states of undress. Even if she dreamed of it, her father, brother, mother, or sister would have pulled her aside saying, “You’re shaming the family!”
The counter-culture revolution of the 1960s, though, has turned our culture upside-down. And the consequences have been devastating. The value of family is gone. So is that of marriage. In mainstream society, a child raised by his mother and father who are still married to each other almost seems like a relic of the past. Society is falling apart.
With this history in mind, we can understand the puzzling contradiction of Moabite women acting chastely in a sinful society. While it’s true that they disregarded morality – represented by their worship of Baal Peor – they still had a sense of dignity and self-respect. They may have been immoral, but they weren’t animals. A father wouldn’t allow his daughter to walk out dressed provocatively, nor would a husband permit his wife to do the same. It was Bilaam’s advice that unraveled the last thread of decency of the Moabites.
Today we are seeing the last threads of our own society’s sense of decency unraveling. Our world has gone off the deep end. What 10 years ago was understood as a psychological illness is now touted as normal and expressive. What five years ago was abhorrent is now defended as a constitutional right. And if one now speaks out against abnormality, one is branded hateful and phobic.
While these developments are occurring in the secular world, their effects creep into our camp as well. We may still be leagues above other nations, but there have been great inroads against propriety, dignity, and self-respect among our people as well.
We require constant reinforcement to remember that we are the chosen nation and that far more is expected of us. One of the best ways to do that is to recognize that what passes for normal living today is neither normal nor living. While the challenge is great, these are but passing times. There will come a time when we will all look back in utter astonishment and ask: “What were people thinking?”