Here it is, the last half of the penultimate reading of the book of Numbers (follow that?). Moses gets the word from God about how to handle vows and oaths and how women’s vows are different than men’s (let’s leave that for now) and what is God’s last direction to Moses before he dies? “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin” (Num 31:1) That is, the last act before you die is to wage a war of vengeance on a tribe Moses is actually related to; Moses’ wife was a Midianite princess. His trusted advisor back in Exodus was Yitro, his father-in-law, a Midianite High Priest.
And whom does Moses pick to help him oversee the military campaign? Not Joshua, his successor and a proven military leader, but Pinchas, his great-nephew, the newly appointed Israelite High Priest, who got his job (if you remember from last week) after stabbing a Midianite woman to death in his zealousness for God
Hardly an indifferent leadership over a military campaign. Pinchas certainly had a grudge against the Midianites, and inlaws or not, Moses warns the people over and over about staying away from the Midianites And the Torah makes no apologies; this is clearly a war of vengeance. Its goal is to destroy an entire nation.
It’s really hard for me to accept that this is ok, commanded even, by God. Not only are the Israelites to wipe out the Midianites, but when the soldiers spare the women, Moses berates them for doing so, and sends them back to slay them, (except those who are still virgins.) It was all those Midianite women, remember, who kept tempting the Israelite men into strange sexual practices and unacceptable idolatry; the two are always linked. And when the war is over and the Israelites are avenged, Moses can die.
Is this a cautionary tale? Or a lesson in realism?. War is war, and it isn’t pretty. I think there are times when people have legitimate reasons to fight and wage war. There are real enemies out there. We used to belive there were rules of war; that basic human decency could exist even in the worst of situations. Even the Talmud acknowledges this. Citing a phrase in this parasha “ They took the field against Midian, as God had commanded to Moses” (3:7) ,the great scholars Maimonides, ( 12th c , aka “Rashbam”) and Nachmanides (13th c. aka “Ramban”) wondered what kind of war advice God had given Moses. They both wrote that the rules for all kinds of war included never surrounding an enemy on all four sides; there should always be an escape route for those that wish to desert or simply save their lives. That’s very humane, but isn’t it unrealistic, or at least naive? What about the enemy that escapes only to re-group and re-attack? The parallels to the matzav, (situation) in Israel pops into our heads, because, after all, the enemy there really does re-group and re-attack.
So now what? Is a war of vengeance a war, or a grudge match? A friend recently told me a definition of a grudge is when you drink poison and expect your enemy to fall over. Perhaps the more grudges that a military or political leader has against the other side, the harder it will be to ever stop the cycle of fighting, because each side keeps dredging up old wounds. Maybe the lesson of Matot is that when you have leaders who are particularly aggrieved against the other side, maybe those are not the people who should be in charge of waging war. Maybe their vision is too clouded. Maybe military leaders need to be ones who actually don’t hate their enemies as much as others do, but rather can involve themselves in the business of war, rather than the emotions of war. Does that even make sense? And does the “morality” of war change with the enemy you face?
As I said, this text is really stumping me, so my musings are not perfectly thought out. The Torah has passages like this that are quite troubling, and they usually involve seemingly unfathomable God-approved acts of violence. Rather than shy away from these texts, we’re committed to wrestle with them. We are, after all, Israel, Yisra-El, the God-wrestlers. So I put it to you, readers out there. What do you think? What’s the lesson you take away from this text?