Judaism: Mattot: The Final Act
Shira SmilesShira Smiles is a sought-after international lecturer, popular seminary teacher and experienced curriculum developer. A well-respected former Los Angeles teacher, she now lives in Israel, where she teaches at Darchei Bina Seminary and leads a number of women's study groups. Shira also trains Torah teachers in special workshops all over the world.
Hashem gives Moshe a final command before he is to die: “Take vengeance for the children of Israel from the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people.” Moshe then recruits 1,000 righteous men from each tribe to comprise an army of 12,000 men against Midyan. Further, he orders Pinchas, the new priest, to lead the army and to bring the Holy Ark and the trumpets with him to the battle, preparations not made for the battles with King Sichon of the Amorites and King Og of Bashan.
Obviously, this war differs from the other wars. The other wars were battles fought for land and for the physical existence of the people. Here, the battle was spiritual, a war started by the Midianites against the soul of our nation. The Midianite women seduced our men, enticed them to transgress two of the cardinal sins, idol worship and sexual licentiousness, to infect their holy souls with impurity. The Midianites caused the deaths of 24,000 Jewish men, and created a schism in our relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. This battle was not so much to avenge the deaths as to repair the rift and resanctify the collective soul of our people.
We can view this war against the Midianites from the perspective of Moshe’s final command from Hashem or, alternately, from the perspective of the Bnei Yisroel’s battle. From Moshe’s point of view, the Ktav Sofer theorizes that it was necessary for Moshe to wage this war. Moshe needed to be sensitive to the pain and suffering the plague caused Bnei Yisroel as a rectification for his previous insensitivity to their pain and thirst when they asked for water and Moshe called them rebellious. Additionally, we can interpret this war according to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch as the final stage of Moshe’s mission to transmit the Torah to Bnei Yisroel. Midyan wanted to destroy the sanctity of Bnei Yisroel so they would be unworthy vehicles for the Torah and would be destroyed. Moshe therefore needed to destroy Midyan so that his mission on earth and to his people would be preserved and Torah life would continue.
But we must take personal and national lessons from this war. Rav Reiss in Meirosh Tzurim focuses on the spiritual nature of this war. It is symbolic of the war each of us constantly wages against our yetzer horo, and it requires constant attention and especially the ability to move away from our typical self absorption to view ourselves honestly and see those middos that could use improvement. Any weakness in character can serve as the entrance point of the yetzer horo to begin it s attack and lead us into sin.
Rav Schorr, the mechaber of Halekach Vehalebu , spoke about the double edged tragedy that rocked our world this past week, the brutal death of eight year old Leiby Kletzky at the hands of a seemingly Orthodox Jew. How could any human being, especially a Jew, sink to such a level? Rabbi Schorr explains that when Hashem created Man He went to all the previously created animals. He took a characteristic of each of them and implanted it in Man. We all have these characteristics and potentials within us. But Rabbi Schorr exhorts us to be vigilant and not allow ourselves to sink to these lower levels. He exhorts us that this tragedy is a wakeup call to take up arms against the evil buried within each of us, for it is our responsibility to chose “to do that which is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.” We need to eradicate from our lives those influences which block our path to Kedushah, to holiness.
Rabbi Bamberger in Niv Sefatayim suggests three approaches to fighting this battle. His first approach is from Maimonides. Whenever you are tempted to do or say something bad, make a conscious decision to replace the action or the words with something good. Then, learn from the Baalei Mussar and read from their works on a daily basis, whether you choose from the Chofetz Chaim or from the works of Rabbi Abraham Twerski or from a myriad of others is irrelevant; just learn. Finally, we must be honest with ourselves and admit that much of our bad character traits are a result of believing that the world around us is the world of truth rather than an illusion and lies.
When Hashem commands Moshe to take vengeance on Midyan, He doesn’t just want us to trample Midyan underfoot, as Rav Hirsch explains, but to raise ourselves up from the level of the depravity they have pulled us into. NiKoM, not just take vengeance, but rise up, wage the war that will return you to the spiritual heights you are destined to reach. Use the Ark, blow the trumpets that will arouse you to teshuvah.
According to the Beer Moshe the origins of the Midianite war against the sanctity of Israel predates the battle in the desert. It actually begins at the time of the sale of Yosef. The brothers wanted to rid themselves of Yosef (not the current topic of discussion), but they would not sell him to the depraved Midianites who passed first, choosing instead to pass him on to the Ishmaelites. But the Midianites already wanted to defile the purity of Yosef who was destined to repel the advances of Potiphar’s wife and who would become the Ish Tzadik, the righteous man as a result. Through several steps and machinations, they acquired the extraordinarily handsome Yosef and sold him to Potiphar who had bought him for homosexual activities. Midyan was already plotting to defile the sexual purity of our nation. They hoped to use the symbol of our sexual integrity as their symbol of debauchery, but Yosef Hatzadik foiled their plans. The Midianite women seducing our men in the desert was a bold continuation of this previous attempt, and the battle we waged here was a battle to preserve our moral code.
Rabbi Yosef Salant sees Midyan as a more dangerous and insidious enemy than those who waged open warfare against us. Similar to Lavan, the Solominer Rebbe says, who tried to ingratiate himself with Yaakov in order to destroy his moral fiber, so too did Midyan try to become one with us, to “intermarry”, and thus destroy us from within by slowly drawing us away from our spiritual core. This is the danger, continues Rabbi Salant that we must be constantly wary of, the subtle dangers lurking in the culture around us that is at odds with the pure neshama of Yiddishkeit. It exists in simple things like street names, in posters, movies and many other ways. This is what Moshe taught the tribes remaining on that side of the Jordan River. Although there may be homes and cities for your families already built, these structures retain within them the taint of the exiting culture. Destroy them and rebuild them as Jewish homes. (I have heard, for example and lehavdil, that many of the homes in Arab quarters still bear the markings of previously affixed mezuzot on their doorposts.)
The battle for the Jewish soul continues. How many of our neshamot have been lost to the lure of drugs and alcohol? How many to easy and instant gratification? How many of these, our brothers and sisters, will God forbid fall away from our path and perhaps into a life of crime? We must fight for them as well, to raise them up, too, from under the foot of the negative prevailing culture.
This was the final teaching of Moshe, meant to protect his sheep against all dangers. Be aware and guard yourself against the yetzer horo that takes so many forms, physical, emotional, and cultural. And the only way to succeed in this endeavor is to work on yourself constantly to improve your middos.
We are told, “Lo kom bYisroel keMoshe.” We are also told that Balaam was as great as Moshe. Yet both statements within this apparent contradiction are true. The Chayei Moshe explains that both Moshe and Balaam were born with the same potentials. Balaam never worked on improving himself and remained stagnant with his negative middos uppermost in his being. Moshe, on the other hand, worked on himself constantly, from going out to empathize with his brothers to sensitizing himself even to the needs of a poor lamb. Hashem did not appear to Moshe until Moshe was eighty years old, after he had perfected himself, after he rose up (KoM) from the baseness that was part of his nature, as it is among all human beings. A Jew knows that rewards are slow, that one must work incessantly on oneself to raise himself from the materialism and baseness of his physical self. In this respect, there was none like Moshe. Balaam could have achieved the same level of greatness, but he chose to ignore working on good middos and traded it all for wealth and prestige, and retained his haughty spirit. Moshe symbolized the good that is in a constant struggle to vanquish evil. Therefore, it was imperative that Moshe finish the battle by slaying Balaam.
Both growth and deterioration occur in slow stages, explains Rabbi Miller. Just as Moshe’s growth was slow, so is the corruption that Midyan and Balaam tried to bring into Bnei Yisroel, and such is the strategy of the yetzer horo. Bnei Yisroel may have felt an affinity for Midyan who were descendents of Avraham Avinu and Keturah, and so a friendship progressed until it reached idol worship.
We are also challenged to rise up and grow, to fight against the yetzer horo within us, and to listen to the pain of the children and adults in our communities as they struggle with the demons threatening to consume them. Let’s help them rise up as well, and may we merit celebrating the approaching Tisha B’Av as a time of redemption and joy. Video will be at naaleh.com .