This Week’s Torah Portion: The War of Revenge Against Midian (Part 40)

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Dëvar Torah — Parashath Mattoth (Numbers XXX, 2-XXX, 1)

This week’s parasha tells us, inter alia, of the war of revenge which Moshe was commanded to wage against Midian (XXXI, 1-20).

At the end of Parashath Balaq, Israel was led to the worship of Ba‘al Pë‘or, after which a plague broke out. This was only brought to an end by the prompt and courageous action of Pinëchas, who ran through Zimri ben Salu, head of Shim‘on, and Kozbi bath Tzur, the Midianite princess with whom he had been cavorting.

The question immediately presents itself: Why single out Midian for punishment?

The Mo’avim were, if anything, more culpable. They had initiated hostilities when their king Balaq hired Bil‘am ben Bë‘or to curse Israel. Even the final incident is described in the Torah as vayachél ha‘am liznoth el bënoth Mo’av (“And the people began to engage in harlotry with the daughters of Mo’av”; XXV, 1). The presence of Kozbi bath Tzur attests to Midianite participation, but they were surely not alone.

The Sifrei asks this question, and provides a curious response. The Midyanim, we are told, hayu mithdayyanim ‘im Yisra’él (“were engaged in litigation with Israel”). This prompted the 20th century sage Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein, in his Torah Tëmima, to note that the name Midyan is derived from the same root as din (“judgment”) and madon (‘quarrel”), whence mithdayyanim. For this reason, the war was named for them.

Rashi, on XXXI, 1, notes that although the Mo’avim began the war, they did so out of fear, justifiable or not. Hence they were less culpable than the Midyanim, who enthusiastically involved themselves in a quarrel not their own. Indeed, from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 82b) we learn that Princess Kozbi begged for the opportunity to defile herself in this way in order to get at Israel.

What was the din and madon between Midian and Israel?

We can see from both previous and subsequent history that the Midyanim were distinguished by their wanton cruelty.

When Yithro, Moshe’s father-in-law, refused to officiate any longer in Midyan’s disgusting cult (cf. Rashi on XXV, 3; Ba‘al Pë‘or was the Midianite god. The Mo’avim worshipped Këmosh, cf. Numbers XXI, 29), he was not only ostracized by the tribe but – per Exodus II, 16-22 — they also tried to destroy his livelihood.

Subsequently, in the Books and Judges and I Samuel we find a reinvigorated Midian associated with the evil and unspeakable ‘Amaléq.

The text of the account of this war indicates how vast is the gulf between Israel and Midian. No other nation in the world would desire to go to war with so fanatical an enemy as Midian. Israel goes to war reluctantly, requiring a direct order from G-d (XXXI, 2). The mashuach milchama — the kohén “anointed (for) war” who blessed the troops before the campaign (cf. Deuteronomy XX, 2-4, Sota 42a) — is a direct descendant of Aharon chassiduth haKohén, the ohév shalom vërodéf shalom, “lover and pursuer of peace” (Avoth I, 12). This is indicative of Israel’s character (XXXI, 6).

Even then, after Israel’s warriors had done their duty (ibid., 7-8), their natural feelings of rachmanuth (“mercifulness”) made them reluctant to kill women and children (ibid., 9), earning them another rebuke from G-d through Moshe.

We see, then, that Israel and Midian represent two direct opposites, one the negative image of the other. To understand the metaphysical significance of this opposition requires some understanding of the Torath haNistar, “hidden things,” through chassiduth.

The universe in which we find ourselves, known as the ‘Alma dëshiqra (“world of deception”), is contained by the infinite ‘alma dëqushta (“world of truth”), in which the ultimate reality of Ha-Shem is directly perceptible. Our world, which is limited and constrained, is separated from that ultimate reality of purity and sanctity by its boundaries, known as qëlippoth (“shells”) of tum’a (“impurity”).

For all of that, our world came into existence through emanations from the Infinite, and connections between the worlds exist. Through these connections, the human soul — a cheleq Eloqi mi-ma‘al (“Divine spark from above”), a direct infusion of ruchniyuth (“spirituality”) from the Infinite — comes into this world. Wrapped in the qëlippoth made manifest with gashmiyuth (“materiality”), a complete human being is the result. A human being is capable of responding to the soul’s yearning for reunification with the Infinite (and thereby refining the material world by using it for spiritual purposes) or, G-d forbid, bending his spiritual powers and binding them in servitude to ephemeral materiality.

This is the underlying reality of those concepts when we know as bëchira (“free choice”) and sachar va‘onesh (“reward and punishment”). Bëchira can only exist in a place where we can deceive ourselves into imagining that the hithgashmuth, the manifestation, the “shadow” cast by the Infinite, as it were, is more real than the world of ruchniyuth. So one may be rewarded for overcoming the illusion or, G-d forbid, punished for succumbing to it.

We are all aware of facets of character which are called in Hebrew middoth. This word, often translated in this context as “qualities,” is in fact derived from madad (“to measure”) — for each personality has these qualities in different measures; different percentages of the whole character.

It is within our power to adjust these measures, and indeed there are good middoth (e.g. “humility”, “love”) which should be maximized to the extent possible, and “bad” middoth (e.g. “anger”, “pride”) which must be minimized. The good middoth are rooted in the ‘alma dëqushta while the bad middoth are rooted in the impure qëlippoth.

 Just as there is individual character, there is national character –even though no individual is predestined to be good or evil by the nation into which he is born.

Witness Yithro, who was able to rise above the cruel and vicious character of Midyan and join Israel. Or Ruth of Mo’av, sufficiently spiritual to be an ancestress of King David and ultimately haMelech haMashiach.

Nonetheless, the summation of all the individual characters who make up a nation, could it be calculated, would produce “bell curves” indicating statistically greater or lesser percentages of the various middoth. For this reason, national character has a great deal of stability since the majority of the members of the nation must change for it to change.

Rabbi Moshe Yëchi’él haLévi Epstein, in his Bë’ér Moshe, quotes the great 16th century sage the Araizal (Liqqutei Tirah, Parashath Yithri) to the effect that the qëlippa of Midyan is directed at the yësod shebiqdusha (“the foundation of sanctity”) — which is the chibbur hasëfiroth haqëdoshoth, the essential connections between the worlds.

Thus, the essence of the Midyani opposition is alienation, disconnection — madon. The Bë’ér Moshe then establishes that the root of this qëlippa is ga’ava (“pride, arrogance”) which he infers from the utter lack of shame or inhibitions in their idolatrous cult or attitudes toward sexuality. This is suggested by Isaiah XLVII, 8: “ …‘adina hayosheveth lavetach ha’omra bilvavah ani vë’afsi ‘od (“ … one given over to pleasures who sits securely, who nays in her heart I am and there is no other beside me”).

This is the very difinition of ga’ava, whose end is precise in the alienation and selfish inconsideration which the Arizal attributes to Midian.

Thus Midian’s strategic goal, which caused them so enthusiastically to enter into the fray, was to de-couple our world from the ‘alma dëqushta. To stem the raging tide of ruchniyuth which had begun to flow into the world with the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai, and to restore the status quo ante.

That this war is not yet over is suggested by Deuteronomy IV, 3 (‘Éneichem haro’oth eth asher ‘asa Ha-Shem bëVa‘al Pë‘or; “Your eyes which are seeing what Ha-Shem has done to Ba ‘al Pë ‘or”) and by Joshua XII, 17 (Hamë‘at lanu eth avon Pë‘or asher lo hutharnumimmennu ‘ad hayom haze; “Is the transgression of Pë‘or, from which we have not been cleansed until today, a small thing for us?”).

Indeed, the Talmud (Sota 14a) tells us that Moshe is buried at Béyth Pë‘or “in order to atone for the incident of Pë‘or.” Tosafoth elaborates by citing a midrash that every year on the anniversary of Israel’s sin with the daughters of Mo’av, Béyth Pë‘or rises up to accuse Israel and revive the memory of this sin — but when it sees Moshe’s grave, it sinks back down.

Why should the grave of Moshe, which after all means that he is no longer in the world, be a damper on Béyth Pë‘or’s accusation? Perhaps it is Israel’s continuation on the path on which Moshe has set us which puts “teeth” in Moshe’s defense and makes possible the uprooting of ga’ava in this world.