This is a difficult time of year for D’var Torahs. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the parshas at this time of year are particularly troublesome. Last week was Pinchas the week before was Balak and now this- Mattot. Here is a rough outline:
Moses is near the end of his life. He has led the people out of slavery and been their shepherd for forty years of transitional wandering. They are on the threshold of the promised land and are in the final stages of preparation to go forward and claim their right to that promise. It is not clear if they know that Moses will no longer lead them but Moses knows. The parsha begins with a detailed treatment of the importance and legal implications of vows and oaths. It goes into fine distinctions about the vows and oaths of women and how they are subject to intervention, under certain circumstances, by the men folk (husbands and fathers) in the woman’s life. This is an irritant too- it certainly does not reflect modern Jewish practice. Then there is an abrupt switch to a narrative in which God commands Moses that the people must take vengeance on the Midianites and tells him explicitly that after that is done, that he (Moses) will “tayasafe al-ha-amecha” “be gathered to his kinspeople”. The Israelites go out into battle, return victorious only to find that the slaughter of the Midianites was not complete enough they- have killed only the Midianite men. The Midianite women and children have been spared. Moses then orders them to kill all the women “who have known men” and all of the male children. This done, the parsha closes with the story of how the tribes of Ruvane, Menashe and Gad begin to settle down on the eastern bank of the Jordan, showing a reluctance to continue on to help settle the rest of the people in “the Land” proper. Moses gets angry with them and insists that if they want the right to settle east of the Jordan river, the men of those tribes must agree to first go with the rest of the people and, in fact, become the “shock troops” (the word used is Chalootz also used as “pioneer” and, today, as “conscript”) of the battles to come. They agree to this and the parsha ends with them consolidating their positions and the stage set for the momentous crossing of the river.
I am going to talk about the war on the Midianites first. The vows section and the agreement with Reuvan, Menashe and Gad, can only be fully appreciated in the light of this major event. As it often happens, sections that seem unrelated, when you study them together, often reveal new and deeper ways of looking at things. There is always something sublime and laden with meaning about the way that sections that seem disjointed at first, the way these do, elucidate and clarify each other.
So, God commanded the massacre of the Midianites and Moses orders it done. It seems irredeemably ugly and cruel to us but there is, no way to ignore it. Many, much wiser readers and interpreters than I, have tried to gloss over, minimize, rationalize or even evade it, because it is so harsh. Plaut, Alter and others say that it is “a story”, hinting that the completion of the murder is just as much of an exaggeration as the claim that not a single Israelite was lost in the initial battle. Plaut makes the point that the Midianites reappear as a people in the book of Joshua and while that might just be a people who have resettled the original land of Midian, it certainly gives an opening for those who would like to believe that there is a more “complex” event here than simple annihilation of innocents.
Even so, the text is clear. When the battle is over and the killing is not as thorough as required, there is a frank and detailed discussion of who shall be killed. While the killing is never confirmed explicitly, it is never denied either. So, we are left having to accommodate this ancient savagery to our modern sensibility.
I struggled with this too; eventually it came to me, I was not looking at the story in context. Those Jews are not the Jews of today. They are not a group of educated professional people who have grown up in the peace and security of an American childhood. They live in an ancient world where the only way to insure that a defeated enemy’s sons and kin would not continue the cycle of revenge after a battle was to render them permanently incapable of it. The parents of these Jews were brutalized as slaves in Egypt. In Forty years of homeless wandering, they have been under constant threat of attack by every group around them. It was so bad that their movements and encampments in the wilderness had to be organized and carried out as military maneuvers with armed guards on all sides- with orders of march enforced. This was the ancient world where there were only three kinds of people- the conquered, the too tough to be conquered and the conquerors. There was no such thing as the UN or World Court- no higher authority- no concept of conflict resolution, there was only the struggle for survival. It is true that you could starve to death easily enough in a famine but the struggle against nature was nothing compared to the need to protect yourself against the depredations of other people.
And what other people! The context on this is even tougher. The vengeance we are talking about here is in response to the Midianite participation in the Baal Pe’or attempt to destroy the Jewish people from within. You will remember that in the parsha Balak, two weeks ago, the Midianites and Moabites conspired to use their own women - to literally prostitute their wives, sisters and daughters in an attempt to subvert and destroy the vitality, cohesion and morality of Israelite culture.
The attempt had some initial success- many Israelites succumbed to temptation and made sacrifices to Baal. Then there came a plague and internal strife that resulted, we are told, in 24,000 Israelite deaths. What a contrast there is between Israel and her neighbors. Given that, in the ancient world, women were not the equals of men and were often treated as chattel, how can there be any comparison between these two cultures? And this is where the relationship between the section on vows and oaths takes on a deeper significance. Here we have Israel, on the one hand, which gives careful consideration and legal respect to the independent vows and oaths of women, compared to Midian, so degraded and underhanded that they use the bodies and souls of their own women as weapons of war. It is abuse of the vilest kind. Midian sacrifices the most intimate relationships and highly charged devotions of the human heart and soul as objects as tools of destruction.
In the history of the Jewish people, we have had to survive all kinds of threats. We have sometimes been able to repel them. At other times we have not. If you are dead, if your culture is conquered by a foreign one, there is no court of higher appeal; moral outrage will buy you nothing at all. I prefer to be able to repel the threat and that is what we see happening in this story; and it is what is happening in Israel today.
Israel the Jewish people (and the Western Judeo-Christian culture which we helped found) face a continuing (a spiraling!) campaign of terror in which the most vulnerable members of both our’s and our enemy’s society are being used as weapons against us. Pre-school children in Gaza, the West Bank and in Madrassas all over the world (even in places in the U.S.) are being taught that it is a sacred duty to kill infidels- especially Jews. Children, women, easily duped young men- even the clinically mentally challenged are turned into walking bombs. Innocent Jewish civilians, women, children the elderly, whose only crime is that they are on the streets of Jerusalem, in a synagogue in Turkey, on an airplane, on a cruise ship, an Olympic athlete or just working in a Jewish Community building in Buenos Aires or Seattle are targeted because they are Jews. Excuse me, let me correct that, Because We Are Jews.
As the stewards and guardians of the Torah and the progenitors of the Judeo-Christian civilization of the west, we Jews have preserved this Torah- kernel of the most positive and moral culture that has ever existed. The things we have had to do have not always been pretty- or even easily defended but they have brought us to this point. The fact remains, though, that we have always done our best to make it as decent as possible. When faced with two very close enemies, Midian and Moab who used their closeness against us; and who, moreover, were willing to prostitute their wives and daughters in order to dissipate and defeat us, the instincts of our people were actually merciful in the context. That ancient army, with the firebrand Pinchas in command, initially reacted, not by total annihilation as is often the custom in modern and ancient wars but by killing only the guilty- the men who had perverted their own lives and those of their women in order to destroy us. Only when the army returned victorious, did Moses in his anger inform them that the women who had allowed themselves to be so used and their sons would have to be killed also. The female children were still to be spared.
With all the trouble and sacrifice our forefathers have had to keep this book and to preserve its teachings, we owe it to ourselves to get over our trepidations and look honestly and openly at this story which has such a relevance for us today.
We need to realize that context works in both directions. If Pinchas and Moses were to come back to life today, they would have as great a problem understanding why Israel does not, today, end the Palestinian problem the same way as they ended the Midianite problem back then as we do understanding how they did what they did to the Midianites.
The times are different. We have evolved but, we are still faced with an enemy who dehumanizes his children, abuses his women and has declared his intention to destroy us- to kill us wherever he finds us. We must stop trying to fit the conflict into our preconceived modern notions of how a conflict “should” be fought. We have to fight the war that is being thrust upon us by an enemy who still lives and fights by ancient rules.
We must stop bewailing or denying the perversion of the other side as Golda Meir famously did when she said, “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us” and protect ourselves from it with positive action. Otherwise, every Israeli child whose leg is blown off by a qassam in Sderot or whose head is bashed in on the beach only to have her killer set free to become a hero to those who want us dead is on your conscience; as is every Palestinian child who is used as a suicide bomber, human shield or just taught to idealize hatred and killing.
If we pay attention to the lessons of this parsha we will see that peace will not come easily when our enemies learn to love their children- they must first be taught that hate and violence is absolutely not going to work. Only Israel and Jews can teach them this and we are failing in our responsibility and as a result violence and hatred are working.
We here in America, like the tribes of Reuvane, Menashe and Gad are settled outside the land and this is where that part of today’s parsha comes in. Mattot means tribes and it means we have to participate. We need to renew the pledge to be in the vanguard of the battle line for our people. Not just for Israel but for ourselves and our children and for America. The Jihadis are not kidding when they chant “Death to the Jews!” and “Death to America!” and our first responsibility is to figure out how to stop the killing- not to understand why they feel so strongly. Midian and Moab had their “reasons” for hating and fearing too. It has always been there.
This parsha has been read every year in every synagogue for thousands of years but it has never been more important for us to really look at it and confront the reality it is showing us. That is the first step- just look at it and recognize what it is- and what is at stake. Then commit to some kind of action, at least learn about what is going on and be an outspoken defender of Israel’s right to exist in security.
For now, there is good news- We still have the power and the opportunity to exercise as much mercy as they allow us to. If we show resolve and willingness to assert our right to safety and security and they make an effort to act in their own best interest, it won’t be so bad. But the window will not stay open forever- Our two millennia of diaspora should have taught us that.
Because of the mixing of religion and politics and because I am fortunate to have a number of people of real depth and intelligence whom I respect and trust to fall back on when I feel I am on the edge, I sent the draft of this post to a few of those people as I was rushing to get it ready before sundown on Friday. It was a last minute cry for help and I got three very helpful responses. Here is a quote from my most Seraphic Friend screenwriter, and blogger Robert Avrech who's blog Seraphic Secret is smart, touching, interesting, informative and witty- any one of which would be enough for most people to achieve. Robert has given me permission to use this from his reply to my SOS email:
I have pondered the Midian slaughter, learned the glosses, and always came to the most simple conclusion—which you do too, in a manner—that this was the way warfare was conducted in the ancient world. If it was not carried out in this manner, you could be sure that the clan survivors would eventually return to extract savage vengeance.
There you have it- I took 2200 words and he says it in 60.