Matot-Massei: When Is The Time For Zealotry?

Why did God demand a slaughter of the Midianites?
Why does the Torah distinguish so sharply between the Moabites and the Midianites?

Table for Five: Matot-Massei

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Moses sent one thousand from each tribe to the army, them along with Pinchas the son of Eleazar the Kohen to the army, with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding in his possession.

-Num. 31:6

Bracha Goetz, Author of 40 Jewish Children’s Books

Moses sent one thousand men from each tribe, including the tribe of Levi, which was usually exempt from army service, to fight against Midian. A unifying force was needed to participate in this vital battle. The Hebrew word “Midian” means “going away from the Divine guidelines.” The Midianite women had lured many Israelite men into indulging their desires and engaging in harlotry. The chaos that ensued caused divisiveness amongst the Jewish people.

Before the people of Israel could attempt to conquer the “seven nations” that inhabited the land of Canaan – representing the seven negative traits of the heart – they first had to destroy Midian. The strife that follows from doing whatever the ego feels like doing is the source and cause of these resulting negative qualities. Strife forms a veil of divisiveness, distorting our clarity about the cosmic oneness. Midian needed to be diminished while Moses was still the leader of the Jewish people because Moses embodied the unifying traits of humility, harmony, and truth.

Pinchas was chosen to lead the battle as it was he who began the fight against harlotry amongst the Jewish people. He was therefore given the honor of completing this sacred mission. His merit was equal to that of the entire rest of the army. Pinchas brought with him the Torah ark that accompanied the Israelites in battle, the high priest’s breastplate from which he could receive divine messages, and practical trumpets to communicate with all those he needed to lead.

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

It has been said that revenge is a dish best served cold. But is that really a Jewish thing? According to this week’s parsha and the war against Midian, yes.

This was a war of revenge against Midian who allowed their women to be used, on the advice of Bilaam, to cause the Jewish men to sin back in Shittim and cause the death of 200,000 (24,000 by plague, and 176,000 through capital punishment). But isn’t there a mitzvah not to take revenge against another? Yes, when the revenge is personal.

When it comes to personal revenge, it has to be through the legal system to objectively establish liability, and the proper recompense if it is forthcoming. But when it comes to taking revenge on behalf of God, as we learned from Pinchas back in Torah portion Balak, then even killing another can be permissible. In theory, it makes sense. In practice, history is full of crusades that supposedly were on behalf of God but in the end, clearly were not.

Who makes the call? The Torah tells us by mentioning Pinchas as the religious leader sent along with the troops. His job was not to determine military strategy against the army of Midian, but military strategy against the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, of the Jewish soldiers. He was the zealot’s zealot, someone who did things only for the sake of God. He accompanied the army to make sure his fellow Jews did the same. That part they got right.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am

When one faces existential threat, one’s defenses must be up; empathy can be a dangerous luxury. This is true across time and species. Yet humans have the ability to discern times of tranquility, when survival of the fittest can yield to understanding and peaceful coexistence. Facing annihilation, one wants one’s most brutal and unyielding leader to wield power. In the latter situation, there is time for statesmanship.

Consider the evocative presence of Pinchas in our verse, and thus its seemingly inevitably bloody denouement. Pinchas, (in-)famous for his violent zealotry, leads the troops. A few verses later we are told that every male in Midian was slain, and women and children were enslaved. Mercy is nowhere to be found.

Our modern sensibilities may bristle. Is this an Israelite war-crime?

Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, (1400s Spain) quotes a midrash explaining that mercy shown towards the ruthless Midianites would lead to disaster, as evidenced by a latter narrative with King David. Midian wanted nothing other than to infiltrate, infect and destroy Israel. Against such a threat, preemptive attack and decisive victory are not only defensible – they are obligatory. There’s no better field general for that than Pinchas.

But can a nation, or an individual, live under constant existential threat? We cannot afford to be eliminated, of course. But can we afford to live without empathy? Morality? Qualms about the other’s destruction? For how long can such a person, or nation, truly persist and thrive?

Many wonder about today’s moment. Antisemitism is on the rise. Israel has few friends. Does that mean we confront annihilation, and the Pinchases among us should lead? It takes some clairvoyance, some reckless but courageous optimism, and trust in the Holy One to know when Pinchas should put down his spear and let the peace-makers rise to take his place.

Kylie Ora Lobell, Community and Arts Editor, Jewish Journal

Hashem commanded Moshe to wage a battle against the Midianites by enlisting 1,000 men from each of the tribes into the army. Why didn’t Hashem tell Moshe to enlist 12,000 from one of the tribes? Or 3,000 from four tribes? The obvious reason is so that one tribe would not suffer innumerable losses, which would be unjust.

But there is a deeper meaning here. Hashem commanded Moshe to do this to spark unity among the Jewish people. By enlisting equal numbers of men from every tribe, it signals, “We’re all in this together.” This is something that unfortunately, we’ve lost today. We’re supposed to live according to the phrase “Am Yisrael chai,” but in many ways, our community struggles to be cohesive and cooperative and work together, even when defending against a common enemy.

The way we can speed up the coming of the Moshiach is to unite, to seek out more similarities than differences, to invite our fellow Jew into our home no matter where they’re coming from. The ancient Israelites were able to defeat the Midianites because they fought as one. It’s now our time to fulfill Hashem’s wish for the Jewish people. We must truly have love in our hearts for every single Jew, and come together so that we can thrive as a nation… just the way Hashem intended.

Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, Associate Dean, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, AJU

The opening verses of Chapter 31, including this verse, describes the brutal outcome of God’s call to battle. Moses initiates a war against the Midianites, purportedly to avenge for earlier sins and through this act, he is promised a closer ingathering to his people.

For the religious critic, passages such as this one are taken out of context to prove God’s violence that only leads to slavery, war, and genocide. Torah, however, was never intended to be taken out of context. Millenia of commentators and rabbinic scholarship teach that the meaning and understanding come from parsing and re-parsing every word and phrase.

For thousands of years, people have tried to explain the call for war against Midian, looking at each individual nuance. So, we look to Rashi, whose commentary turns this whole passage on its head. Rather than focusing on the war with Midian, he considered the difference with the Moabites. The concern of the Moabites, he says, came out of immediate fear and security, and did not pose the existential threat of pinning Israelites against one another. Moreover, Rashi explains, the Moabites and Ammonites included “two goodly doves,” two righteous women – Ruth and Naomi, through whom the future of the Jewish people was to come.

Blessing comes in seeing that we need others who are different. Our future is not assured through war and vengeance. Assurance comes in putting down shields and armor and recognizing that we are interdependent on one another.

With thanks to Bracha Goetz, Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Kylie Ora Lobell, and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz

Image: Moses Ordering the Slaughter of the Midianites –  Claes Cornelisz Moeyaert, 1650

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