"The imperative to win runs strongly through our collective American psyche." Football coach Al Davis' sentiment rings loud and clear: "Just win, baby." In many pursuits in the modern world, we find those willing to hurt others and compromise their integrity just to gain on the competition. To quote baseball manager Leo Durocher, "Nice guys finish last." Since nobody wants to be last, what, therefore, is the advantage to being nice, let alone honest or just?
The final sections of Numbers describe the Israelites' preparations to enter the Promised Land. The first census of the Israelites in four decades is taken and the guidelines for allocating tribal lands within the borders of Eretz Yisrael are set.
We learn of laws governing inheritance and regulating the fulfillment of vows, the laws of sacrifices and of refuge. We learn of which tribes will settle on which banks of the Jordan. The stage is being set for Moses' farewell orations to the people prior to the conclusion of their 40-year pilgrimage.
Among the motifs on display is the response of the various Canaanite nations to the Israelite advance. While some monarchs, like Sichon and Og, chose to confront them head on, others chose guile. Balak, king of Moab, commissioned Balaam to curse the Israelites, which three times was transformed by God into blessings.
This, in turn, led to an even more desperate attempt by the five kings of Midian. At Balaam's suggestion, they sent the women of their kingdom to seduce the Israelite men and thus undermine our people's moral connection to God. Only the zealotry of Pinchas stemmed the acts of licentiousness.
How far might one go to win? Does it include prostituting loved ones to achieve personal goals? Listed among the five Midianite kings was Tzur, who sent his daughter Cozbi to lead the Midianite women in their acts of sexual subversion. It was she who was slaughtered with the Simeonite prince, Zimri, as they brought their lewd union into the midst of the Israelite camp.
Reprisals Spell Disaster
Chapters later the Israelites avenge the Midianites' attack on their moral core and kill their nemesis, Balaam. Again we find a list of the Midianite kings, only this time the order has changed. Originally, Tzur had been listed first among his peers; now, he is third. A midrash claims even his colleagues were so disgusted by his behavior that they demoted him from leader to a tertiary position. His actions brought Israelite reprisals that spelled disaster for the cause Tzur so craftily thought he could win.
Scarcely a week goes by when we don't read of someone willing to compromise integrity and good judgment just to score some perceived victory: financiers who fleece others, bringing disaster on their victims and reproach on their families; government officials who play games with the fiscal stability of this country just to gain votes in the next election. The Midianite kings' scheme reminds us that actions bring consequences in their wake, even if delayed.
Commenting on the relationship between hiring and virtue, America's ultimate financial winner, Warren Buffet, counsels: " … look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy … [without] the first, the other two will kill you." The example of Tzur proves just how true this insight is.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham.