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Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5779 — 08/03/2019

Parshiyyot Matot-Masei 5779 — 08/03/2019

Matot: Bamidbar 30:2 – 32:42
Mas’ei: Bamidbar 33:1 – 34:29

Last week we considered the issue of zealotry in Judaism – when is an individual allowed to take the law into his own hands and violently remove evil (and the evildoers) from the community. This week we will look at what might be considered acts of communal zealotry, where the nation goes to war to eliminate evil from the world. And we will find that just as in the individual case, our tradition, while acknowledging Torah Law as inviolable, puts various Rabbinic fences around it.

R. Goldin’s comments and analysis on this issue are quite extensive, so I will summarize rather than providing extensive quotations. There are two types of wars in Jewish Law. The first is a milchemet mitzvah / obligatory war. Obligatory wars include wars that we are commanded to fight: the war against the Midianites in our parashah, the war against the 7 Canaanite nations to take possession of the Land of Israel and the war against Amalek; and any defensive war. The other type of war is a milchemet reshut / optional war, such as a war to expand the boundaries of the nation.

The laws surrounding an optional war are much more stringent than those surrounding an obligatory war. Before waging an optional war the king must get permission from the Sanhedrin – he must justify the need for war and the Sanhedrin must determine whether or not such a war is necessary and desirable in Gd’s eyes. During the time that the Urim and Tummim were operative, the king would consult the Kohen Gadol who would get the answer from Gd via the Urim and Tummim. In addition, during an optional war the Jewish army must offer peace to a city it wishes to capture before it attacks, and when besieging the city can only besiege it from 3 sides, so that any who wish to escape may do so (presumably this is a one-way allowance and the besieging army may prevent provisions and reinforcements from entering the city).

An obligatory war is a much more destructive affair. Obligatory wars are waged against the inveterate enemies of Israel, nations that are steeped in evil ideologies and evil deeds. In the case of the Midianites, only female children below about 3 years of age were allowed to be kept alive. The women, who were the direct cause of the incident (since they were the ones who seduced the Israelite men), are apparently to be considered combatants. Of course, there were no Geneva Conventions at that time and the women had demonstrated themselves to be a clear and present danger to the Israelites and their project of creating purity in their camp, their land and the world. Therefore Moshe Rabbeinu orders them executed. This certainly grates against modern sensibilities.

The case of Amalek is similar. Although Yehoshua was commanded only to fight them off, King Saul is commanded to kill them all, along with their cattle. He saves King Agag and the cattle and in return goes mad, loses his kingdom after only two years on the throne, and loses his life fighting the Philistines. King Agag goes on to produce a line of offspring that culminates in Haman and his 10 sons, who almost annihilate the Jewish people. On the other hand, the Sages tell us that the descendants of Haman taught Torah in B’nei B’rak. On the other hand, the Talmud tells us that he who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful – in this case a kindness to King Agag led to cruelty towards the Jewish people. In the case of the Midianite women, their actions caused the death of 24,000 Israelite men; had they been allowed to live and hang out on the fringes of the camp, who knows how many more might have succumbed? Still, it does grate against modern sensibilities.

In the case of the war against the Canaanite nations the rules are less clear. In this case the objective was to rid the land of the idolatrous practices (including child sacrifice) of the Canaanite peoples. This could be done by having the people leave the Land peacefully, rather than killing them, and some chose that option. Having them simply forswear these practices was considered too unreliable and too dangerous. We are warned not to make any treaty with them lest they become thorns in our sides and pins in our eyes, blinding us to reality and tempting us away from Gd and into idolatry (with its attendant lasciviousness). In fact, all the Canaanites were not driven out and they did become a source of much sin and concomitant grief to the nation. It is unclear whether or not an offer of peace must be made; in fact, such offers were made by Moshe himself to the Amorite nations on the east side of the Jordan (Sichon and Og) but those offers were rejected and the Amorites were defeated, losing their lands (the tribes of Reuven and Gd, as well a portion of the tribe of Menashe, were settled on those lands, which became part of the Land of Israel).

In truth, our Rabbis tell us that there are no Amalekites left, nor Canaanites, nor Moabites, nor Ammonites, nor any of the ancient peoples since they were conquered by Sencheiriv in around 700 BCE. His policy was to exile everyone and scatter them all to other lands so that their original national identities would be lost, along with their will to rebel. This is how the 10 “lost tribes” got “lost” – to assimilation with the surrounding peoples due to not having a critical mass. Therefore these rules are all moot in practice.

When the Torah prescribes the death penalty for some offense, it often states, “… and you shall remove the evil from your midst.” In most cases we should be able to remove evil from our midst by perfecting ourselves, and helping others to perfect themselves. It is only a failure of self-perfection that gives rise to circumstances where someone must be executed. Likewise, it is only a failure of self-perfection that forces the nation to go to war to begin with. Gd has promised us that if we follow His Will, we will be invincible. Maybe we should give it a try?

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Matot-Massei

Parshah Matot begins with Moses declaring that Gd has said whatever we vow to Gd to do or to refrain from doing, we must do or refrain from. The exceptions are a daughter’s vow may be annulled by her father and a wife’s by her husband at the time of hearing the vow. Rashi adds a third and fourth source of annulment, based on the fact that Moses spoke these word to the princes and not to all Israel: a single expert may annul (The Lubavitcher Rebbe says “a sage”) or three laymen.

I found the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discussion particularly helpful: he presented the view that we need to bind ourselves to Gd as the Father and let nothing stand between us and His Will — knowing it and doing it. Similarly, we need to betroth ourselves to Gd and do his will so the bondage of the world is annulled and we rise to the state of marriage to Gd, in Oneness, with the “children” of our marriage being our good deeds

We must rise to the level of marriage with Gd in which, with Gd’s help, we annul the bonds that keep us and our world in illusion, concealing Gd’s Presence:

“Nullifying in himself and the world, the masks of illusion that hide Gd’s presence from man.” And this power is “retroactive,” that is, beyond the normal limitations of time and space. Just as a vow binds, and an annulment breaks the bond, so he, with the help of Gd, releases the world from its bondage, from falsehood, finitude and the concealment of Gd.

Our Tradition helps us move in this direction.

Why did Gd choose Joshua and Eleazer to lead to and inherit the Promised Land even though they were less than Moses, a prophet never equaled in the life of Israel?

The same principle that the Lubavitcher Rebbe uses in reference to annulment of vows by father or betrothed or husband, applies here:

Neither Moses nor Joshua nor Eleazer was the real leader, the real shepherd, the real High Priest: Gd is the Leader, the Shepherd, the High Priest.

As David puts it in Psalm 23 “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want; he leadeth me to lie down in green pastures, besides the still waters. He restoreth my soul…”

And in Joshua I:5-9, Gd puts it this way to Joshua:
“5. No man shall stand up before you all the days of your life; as I was with Moses, so shall I be with you. I will not weaken My grasp on you nor will I abandon you.
6. Be strong and have courage; for you will cause this nation to inherit the land that I have sworn to their ancestors to give to them.
7. Just be strong and very courageous to observe and do in accordance with all of the Torah that Moses My servant has commanded you. Do not stray therefrom right or left, in order that you succeed wherever you go.
8. This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.
9. Did I not command you, be strong and have courage, do not fear and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your Gd is with you wherever you go.”

So Gd guides Joshua and Eleazer as he guided Moses and what Joshua does is Gd’s Will — not less than Moses’ actions: perfect!

And when we open ourselves innocently to Gd, to Wholeness, Oneness – our actions are fully guided, perfect!

Baruch HaShem