Matot-Massei: Conquering The Enemy Within

The soldiers didn’t just survive, they elevated.

How do we leave the battlefield behind when the war ends?

Table for Five: Matot-Massei

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

They said to Moses, “Your servants counted the soldiers who were in our charge, and not one man was missing from us. We therefore wish to bring an offering for the Lord. Any man who found a gold article, be it an anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an earring, or a body ornament, to atone for our souls before the Lord.

-Num 31:49-50


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In-Residence, Aish/JMI

I’ve never tasted war. Never encountered the terror, ferocity and dehumanization of that experience. Fed on a diet of war images and personal accounts, I’m left with one searing question. How does any soul survive war?

How can any person thrust into an environment seething with fear and savagery, emerge a sane and emotionally stable person? Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, is the reasonable response of a soul exposed to a brutal experience. What’s amazing is that anyone comes back from war as a functioning human being! And yet, the protagonists of our verses did.

The war against Midian was fought against an enemy whose sole objective was to demoralize and corrupt the Jewish people. An enemy that had no compunctions prostituting their wives and daughters in their war effort. An enemy that saw goodness and holiness as a threat. “And not one man was missing” ostensibly reports that there were no casualties suffered in this war against Midian. This verse, however, can also be interpreted to convey that despite being forced to engage in the violent enterprise of war, none of the soldiers lost their humanity, their morality, their Jewish compass. None of the soldiers surrendered to the base and ugly impulses that war can unleash. No man was missing! You see, every soldier has two enemies, his adversary and himself. How he behaves in the battles of his life will determine whether he returns from war or is an ongoing casualty of it. Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Rabbi, Beis Knesses of Los Angeles

“Any man who found a gold article, anklet, a bracelet, a ring, an earring, or a kumaz…” offered that as an offering. Now what on earth is a kumaz? Saadia Gaon says it was a jeweled belt, Chizkuni says an arm band, Septuagint, a brooch. The Talmud (Shabbos 84a) says it was a genital shield of some kind, Rabbenu Efraim, R. David Pardo, and others explain this to mean some sort of chastity belt! According to the Jerusalem Talmud, it was a gold brassiere. There’s actually an opinion (R. Aaron Alrabi cited by Kaplan, Living Torah to Exodus 34:22) that it was a pornographic sculpture!

Now according to the interpretations that these items were sexually suggestive, are these appropriate religious donations?! The Talmud famously describes the reluctance of Moshe to accept mirrors donated by women used to beautify themselves as somehow less than appropriate, until God instructed him to accept them. Bartenura wonders, why no reluctance here? He explains: the mirrors were kept just as they were when attached to the vessel. But the kumaz was melted down and reshaped. There is no thing in the world cannot be used for holiness. Even feelings of lustfulness can be reshaped, and redirected. There is nothing about you that isn’t useful to connect to God. Nothing cannot be offered to Him. But you must reshape it. We cannot merely accept our tempers and weaknesses as they are. But we need not fear them, for if we recast them, they are the most glorious offerings possible.

Romain Hini-Szlos, photographer/Www.rhsgallery.com

This verse begins with an ambiguous pronoun: “They came for Moses.” Who are “they”? The pasuk continues, “The officers appointed over the army’s thousands, the commanders of a thousand and the commanders of a hundred.”

Why did “they” feel the need to bring so many offerings to Hashem? The answer is found a few verses prior, during which the Torah uses the same language in referring to Moshe’s anger at the officers of the army, who, upon returning from the war against the Midians, brought back captives (Moshe specifically instructed that they should not take captives).

In realizing their mistake, the officers counted their army the same way that Hashem now counts His nation, to show his love and care for each one of His people. And when the officers counted and realized that no Jew who fought was missing, despite their grave mistake in taking captives, they provided offerings for the souls who fought against them. This teaches us a deeply powerful lesson: Even when we make mistakes, Hashem shows his mercy when we, as Jews, prove that we care for one another and can unite as one nation. Such unity can result in redeeming and even miraculous invincibility.

Yehudit Garmaise, Journalist

After the telling b’nai Yisrael to wreak vengeance on the Midianites, who had enticed them to sin, by killing the adults and plundering their belongings, Hashem exacted a tax in which He would take 1 out of every 500 people, animals, or items taken from Midian.

In addition, without having been commanded to do so, the Jewish commanders collected 16,750 shekels worth of gold jewelry, which they also presented to Hashem.

What purpose did this extra donation of jewelry serve?

Of course, giving tzaddakah: whether kind words, actions, or money is the ultimate mitzvah that brings us closer to Hashem and serves as a kapporah for our sins.

But the donation of gold also represents the war on Midian that we all must wage within ourselves every. The Lubavitcher Rebbe tells us that to enter a place, like eretz Yisroel, where Hashem is revealed, just as b’nai Israel must wage war on the forces that seek to destroy us on the outside, we must similarly wage war on our enemies within.

Like the jewelry that b’nai Israel took off themselves to give to Hashem, we can try to “give away” our need for affirmation that we seek to wear proudly.

Perhaps these three weeks, we can strive to move past our own needs for validation, and give away the “rings and bracelets” that we don’t really need.

Instead, we can remind ourselves what we say every morning in the davening: “Our souls are pure.” What other affirmation do we need?

Rabbi David Block, Head of School, Shalhevet High School

After Israel’s battle with Midian, the military leaders noticed that not a single soldier had perished. As a show of gratitude to God, they decide to donate their inanimate spoils (namely, jewelry) to God. The gesture is beautiful – but also quite strange. Earlier, God instructed the people to donate *living* spoils (like animals) to God. But here, they choose to donate *jewelry*. Why?

The sensitive reader may notice that the list of donations has a fascinating resonance. “Gold objects, armlets… signet rings, earrings…” sounds quite similar to Israel’s earlier donations to Mishkan: “…earrings, signet rings, armlets, gold objects” (Shemos/Exodus 35:22). And perhaps that link purposeful.

The Mishkan’s construction happened right after the Golden Calf, when Israel had forgotten the Source of all they had. When they later donated to God the very materials that they had used to build the Calf (as Tosafos and others notice), they emphatically recognized that everything they had was from God. But 40 years later, as they began to move from an entirely miraculous existence towards a more natural order, that lesson was in danger of getting lost (a la Devarim 8:17-18). It would’ve been easy to attribute the victory against Midian to military prowess alone. But, when they saw that not a single soldier perished, they recognized that God’s was incontrovertibly present. They reached back to the previous generation’s playbook. They donated gold jewelry – the very materials that, years earlier, served as a reminder that everything is from God.

With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Rabbi Elchanan Shoff, Romain Hini-Szlos, Yehudit Garmaise and Rabbi David Block

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