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Judaism: Mattot: The Purpose of War

This week's Torah reading includes the command to wage war under certain circumstances.
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 10:39 AM


Parashat Mattot records, inter alia, G-d’s command to Moshe to wage war: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterward you will be gathered unto you people” (Numbers 31:1-2).

G-d was telling Moshe that he had one final task to fulfil, and upon completing it he would die. The Midianites had correctly identified Israel’s weak point: having tried and failed to hire the Gentile prophet Bil’am (Balaam) to curse them, they instead took his advice and sent their womenfolk to seduce the Jewish men (see Numbers 31:16).

“[Bil’am] said to them [the Midianites]: The G-d of these ones hates sexual immorality, and they crave linen. Come, I’ll give you some advice: Make tents for them and put harlots inside – an old woman outside and a girl inside, and sell them linen garments…” (Sanhedrin 106a). And then follows a long and detailed account of how the Midianite women and girls seduced the Jewish men, and used their powers of seduction to entice the Jews into idolatry.

Bil’am’s ploy succeeded to a frightening degree: “The nation began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab, and they called on the nation to sacrifice to their gods; the nation ate and bowed to their gods. Israel became attached to Ba’al-Pe’or, and Hashem’s fury flared against Israel… And those who died in the plague were 24,000” (Numbers 25:1-9).

And in this week’s parashah, G-d instructed Moshe to lead the nation in a war of vengeance against the Midianites.

Now Moshe could easily have delayed fighting against the Midianites, and for very convincing reasons. After all it takes time to put an army together, to select the best commandos, to train the soldiers, to build up combat units, and so forth. Then, as every military commander knows, before embarking on any mission the army must gather intelligence, determine the enemy’s strength, send raiding parties to attrit the enemy forces, prepare field command posts, and so forth.

By that time winter would already have set in, and winter with its inclement weather and short days is no time to initiate conflict. Winter is for training, consolidating forces, and besieging the enemy.

Moshe could easily have delayed the attack against the Midianites for months if not for years, and thus extended his own life. As the Midrash says, “Had Moshe wanted to live for several more years, he would have lived, because G-d said to him, ‘Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Israel against the Midianites; after that you will be gathered unto your people’. G-d made his death contingent on the vengeance against Midian. And this teaches you Moshe’s praises: he did not say, I will delay the Children of Israel’s vengeance against the Midianites so that I may live. Instead, immediately ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm men from among yourselves for the army and they will be against Midian’ (Numbers 31:3)” (Tanhuma, Mattot 3 and Bamidbar Rabbah 22:2).

Or in the terse words of Sifrei (Mattot 157), “‘…after that you will be gathered unto your people’ – saying that Moshe’s death would be delayed for the war against Midian; yet nevertheless Moshe went about this task joyfully, as it says ‘Moshe spoke to the nation saying: Arm [‘hechaltzu’] men from among yourselves…’ And the word ‘hechaltzu’ means ‘hasten’”.

As Rashi summarises, “Even though he realised that his death depended on this matter he did it joyfully, without delaying” (commentary to Numbers 31:3).

It is clear enough why Moshe hastened to fight against the Midianites, even though he was thereby hastening his own death. This was a war of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying the Name of G-d), and Kiddush Hashem cannot be delayed for even a moment.

But this raises a puzzling question. The Moabite-Midianite spiritual attack on Israel happened at the end of Parashat Balak (Numbers 25:1-9), followed immediately by Pinchas’ slaying of Cozbi (the Midianite princess) and Zimri (the Jewish tribal leader) who were consorting in public. Pinchas’ killing of these two immediately stopped the plague, and no more Jews died.

And then came the census (26:2-65), and the tangentially connected episode of the five daughters of Tzlof’chad (Zelophehad) who demanded their portion in the Land of Israel (27:1-11), Moshe’s conferring leadership onto Joshua (vs. 12-23), the commanding of several sacrifices and festivals (chapters 28 and 29), and laws of oaths and vows (chapter 30).

If the war of vengeance against the Midianites was so urgent – so urgent that Moshe was not willing to delay even for an instant, even though it meant hastening his own death – then why did G-d delay the command to go to war until now? Why did so much happen in the interim?

I suggest that if G-d inserted all these narratives between the Moabite-Midianite spiritual attack and our retaliation, then there must be a direct, even organic, connexion between the two. Otherwise, they would have constituted an unacceptable interruption.

Let us analyse these various events one by one: –

Pinchas’ slaying of Cozbi and Zimri was an obvious prelude to the wider war, waged by the Children of Israel collectively against the Midianites collectively.

Next came the census, which was a necessary prelude to war. Even though Moshe selected 1,000 men from each Tribe (Numbers 31:3-6) regardless of the size of the Tribe (the numbers ranged between 22,200 for Simeon, the smallest Tribe, and 76,500 for Judah, the largest Tribe), the booty of war was later to be divided between those who fought in the campaign and the rest of the nation: half went to the 12,000 warriors, half was divided among the rest of the nation (Numbers 31:25-27).

The five daughters of Tzlof’chad who were so concerned to receive their portion in the Land of Israel were a tangible reminder for the entire nation of what they were fighting for. In any war, in any battle, in any military campaign – define your objective and stick to it, and ensure that there are constant reminders of what your ultimate objective is. This is sound military doctrine, taught by every military theorist from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz to Dr. John Pimlott, and the episode of Tzlof’chad’s daughters was a classic example of this.

Then Moshe publicly appointed Joshua as his successor. Again, this is sound military doctrine: in any war, facing uncertain consequences, the commander-in-chief must make it absolutely clear who his second-in-command is. The commander-in-chief cannot be available at all times, and in any time of emergency there must be no arguments as to who his replacement is.

This was even more important in the campaign against Midian. After all, since G-d had told Moshe that this was his final task in this world and that afterwards he would die, Moshe had perforce to appoint Joshua before the campaign. Moshe might have died immediately upon the warriors’ return from their successful battle, or even before they returned, but as soon as their victory was complete. Moshe could not have known at the time that he still had at least six weeks to live, so he had to ensure that his successor was already firmly in place, and that the entire nation would witness his appointing of Joshua so that there could be no dissention afterwards.

Then comes the series of sacrifices – the Tamid (twice-daily) offering, the Mussaf (Additional) offerings for Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, the sacrifices for Pesach, Chag ha-Matzot, Shavuot, Rosh ha-Shanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and Sh’mini Atzeret.

To understand the relevance of this series of sacrifices to the sequence of events, we have to go back to the Torah’s account of Pinchas’ killing of Cozbi and Zimri. “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: Pinchas…has turned My fury away from the Children of Israel by being zealous for My zealousness in their midst… By being zealous for his G-d he atoned for the Children of Israel” (Numbers 25:10-13).

The Midrash challenges this: “Did he then bring a sacrifice, that the Torah says that ‘he atoned’? Rather, this comes to teach you that anyone who sheds the blood of the wicked – it is as though he brought a sacrifice” (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:3 and Tanhuma, Pinchas 1).

There is, indeed, an organic connexion between the narrative of the sacrifices and the war against the Midianites. Every Jew who went out to battle, and every Jew who stayed behind to “keep the home fires burning”, had to have the lesson of sacrifice fresh in his consciousness. Every Jew had to be fully aware that killing the enemy on the battlefield was not merely empty militarism, and the confrontation between Israel and Midian was not merely empty nationalism. Our wars are an expression of Kiddush Hashem, the enemies of Israel are the enemies of G-d, and the enemies whom our soldiers kill on the battlefield are as sacrifices.

Then come the laws of oaths with which Parashat Mattot begins: “Moshe spoke to the heads of the Tribes of the Children of Israel saying, This is the matter which Hashem had commanded: Any man who vows a vow to Hashem or swears an oath to accept a prohibition upon himself shall not violate his word; he shall do according to everything that comes out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2-3).

This section appears immediately before the last war that we would wage before entering the Land of Israel, and so it is appropriate to compare it with the first military campaign which this generation waged, the war against the Canaanite king of Arad: “The Canaanite king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he warred against Israel and captured a captive from it. Then Israel vowed a vow to Hashem, saying: If You will indeed deliver this nation into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. And Hashem heard Israel’s voice, and He delivered the Canaanites to them, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities” (Numbers 21:1-3).

The parallels in the syntax are too close to be coincidence. “Vayidar Yisrael neder l’Hashem…” (“Israel vowed a vow to Hashem…”) in the context of the war against the Canaanite king of Arad; and “Ish ki yidor neder l’Hashem…” (“Any man who vows a vow to Hashem…”) immediately before the war against Midian.

The Midrash Lekach Tov begins its exposition on Parashat Mattot by citing “When you vow a vow to G-d, do not delay in paying it, because He has no delight in fools; what you vow, pay! It is better that you do not vow, than that you vow and do not pay” (Ecclesiastes 5:3-4).

In that generation’s first war, the war against the Canaanite king of Arad, Israel fully fulfilled their vow when “they utterly destroyed them and their cities”. Israel must know that waging war is a serious commitment – a commitment which obligates us, as does a vow. Just as it is better not to vow than to vow and not fulfil, so too it is better not to go to war than to go to war and not to win.

And then, having absorbed the lessons of the census, Tzlof’chad’s five daughters, Moshe’s appointment of Joshua as his successor, sacrifices, and vows, the Children of Israel were ready to forth to war without delay against Midian – and were ready to fight until victory.