Thursday, June 28, 2007

Parshat Balak 5767: The Peor Outbreak

Numbers 22:2-25:9

In this portion, King Balak of Moab watches all of his neighbors go down to defeat militarily at the hands of the Israelites. He sends envoys to the greatest magician in the area, Balaam, to curse the advancing Israelites. After a series of adventures, Balaam meets up with Balak, and sets up the curse. Three times in a row, the curse ends up as a blessing, the most famous now known as the prayer “ma tovu” and Balak is furious. But Balaam comes up with a plan for biological warfare. At the very end of this section, we read:

Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. They called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; so the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. Then Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. [Numbers 25:1-3]

A plague ensues, killing 24,000 people, more than any other plague. The plague ends in a bizarre manner:

And, behold, one of the people of Israel came and brought to his brothers a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the people of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the Tent of Meeting. When Pinhas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand;

He went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague ceased from the people of Israel. [Numbers 25-6:8]

I’m obsessed about this plague. Actually I’m intrigued by what the rabbis did with it. There are two clues in the text that explain how they come to their conclusions. The first is the name of the pagan god, Baal Peor. Baal in Hebrew means master or lord, and the common beginning of a number of such pagan god-names. So in Hebrew for example Zebuv means flies. Thus the Baal Zebuv (Beelzebub in Greek) of II Kings 1 can be translated the lord of the flies. Breaking the word Peor into syllables we have Peh meaning opening and Ohr meaning skin. Thus Baal Peor is lord of the skin orifices.

The second is a phrase in the text the people ate, and bowed down to their gods [Numbers 25:3] The Rabbis believed that there was significance to this sequence, best explained in the following story:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: A gentile woman once fell sick. She vowed, “If I recover, I will go and serve every idol in the world.” She recovered, and proceeded to serve all idols. On reaching Peor, she asked its priests, “How is this worshipped?” They replied, “People eat beets, drink strong drink, and then uncover themselves before it. She replied, I would rather fall sick again than serve an idol in such a manner.” [Sanh. 64a]

As an Environmental Health professional I see this as an outbreak from fecal sources. When one eats and sacrifices in a room full of sewage bad things are going to happen.

Last week I began a speech at my professional association’s conference with the Peor incident. In Hebrew there is no word for enforcement, the modern word actually is a word for oppression. The point of my speech was good EH people modify the behavior of others instead of enforcing behavior. Health inspectors need to be more story tellers and less cops.

While attending sessions at the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) Education Conference and talking to many people between sessions, I kept getting a sinking feeling. Environmental Health Professionals, what some people call health inspectors or sanitarians get a bum rap. We either get ignored or blamed for not doing the right thing. Yet we are rarely given the resources to do our job properly in the first place. From government regulators to industry auditors, the story was the same. Environmental heath is the under funded orphan of public health.

We are often confused with environmental protection. Environmental protection might be described as protecting the planet from environmental contaminants. On the other hand environmental heath is protecting people from biological and chemical contaminants in the environment.

Environmental Health is a prevention, investigation and education activity, and thus its benefit is difficult to see. If done well, nothing happens. It thus becomes the last thing to be funded either in industry or in government.

Yet this is not the frame of mind in Biblical thinking. Prevention, from the fence on the roof to the fence around Torah is deeply rooted in biblical tradition. One example given not long after the Baal Peor incident is this one:

You shall have a place also outside the camp, where you shall go out to it; You shall have a spade among your weapons; and it shall be when you will ease yourself outside, you shall dig with it, and shall turn back and cover your excrement;[Deut 23:13-14]

It is a matter of environmental heath to keep fecal matter away from public areas and to dispose of it properly. It’s a commandment to dispose of sewage properly.

The lead character in the biblical environmental health story is the Priest, which throughout both Leviticus and Numbers we hear of the number of health related issues the priest was responsible for. Yet the priest who was responsible was not the High Priest, but the vice priest. The High Priest, in order to do his sacrificial duties, could not be involved with public health. Too many situations required quarantine and decontamination procedures which would make him unfit for performing sacrifice. Instead it was the second in command who did these things.

The man who stops the plague of Baal Peor is none other than the vice priest, Pinhas. He stops it by killing just one Israelite having sex with a Midianite in the Mishkan. In doing so he changes the minds of everyone who was seduced into Baal Peor worship. The seduction had reached the point of addiction according to the rabbis. By changing people attitudes he saves everyone. In my mind Pinhas is the first Environmental Health official, the first good Sanitarian.

While I don’t condone throwing javelins through health regulation offenders, Pinhas begins a model which we find throughout the tradition. Balaam in this section is involved with magic and in many places in the Torah we find prohibitions against magic. Yet, there is one kind that the Talmud condones: Magic that keeps people healthy. Such practices can be curative, but even more important is preventative magic. Pinchas in killing one person broke Balaam’s spell of seduction. Exposure to the pathogens hovering around Baal Peor’s temple stopped, and contamination waned. It was miraculous, but it also was good science through prevention and behavioral science. Following the ideal of building a fence around Torah, the Rabbis did the same thing for human beings, noting preventative practices. Describing many of the microorganisms of today as demons they instituted many policies that still stand the test of time. For example, they advised against spending time in swamps or sewers, advocated washing hands before eating, and prohibited eating food which has sat out too long or under a bed.

When I wonder about environmental health I go back to the ancient sources, and see that it has always been there. It may have been demons instead of microorganisms back then, but the world still had EH in some form or another. We in EH have been protecting the population since the Exodus from Egypt, and I truly hope we will do so till the end of time.

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