Rabbi Avraham GordimerThe writer is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the New York Bar.
A significant amount of the text of Parshat Matos, this week's Torah reading, is devoted to the disposition of the booty from the war with Midian - in particular, tallying the sums of each type of material and gifting a percentage of it for holy purposes.
Why is the booty from the war with Midian given this special, elaborate treatment? Jewish warfare is never waged for the sake of booty, and booty is in fact never really given focus. At times, booty is even forbidden. Hesder soldiers in the IDF are taught about this during their training.
The war with Midian was precipitated by the idolatrous orgy at Ba’al Pe’or into which Midian ensnared B’nei Yisroel, the People of Israel, resulting in the deaths of 24,000 Jews. Although there were other public sins committed in the midbar (desert), with the exception of the Chet Ha-Egel (Sin of the Golden Calf) and the Chet Ha-Meraglim (Sin of the Spies), the public sin at Ba’al Pe’or seems to have the most notoriety in the Torah.
If one thinks about it, it becomes apparent that the sin at Ba’al Pe’or was quite similar to the Chet Ha-Egel. In both cases, there was both idolatry and licentiousness (v. Rashi on Shemos 32:6, from Medrash Tanchuma); in both cases, Moshe summoned fellow Jews to judge and execute the offenders (v. Rashi on Shemos 32:20); in both cases, the Torah specifies the massive number of those who perished due to these sins.
In the case of the Chet Ha-Egel, aside from punishment and repentance, long-term atonement was obtained by the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), toward which B’nei Yisroel donated precious possessions as well as their energy and skills to demonstrate their commitment to Hashem and their desire for the Shechinah (Divine Presence) to reside in their midst – a desire that was wanting upon commission of the Chet Ha-Egel. And so too does it appear to be the case with the sin at Ba’al Pe’or, in which public connection to Hashem was shattered in the frenzy of idolatry and licentiousness, as the masses cried during the chaos and spiritual pandemonium; there was again a need to recommit to Hashem and show a desire for the Shechinah (G-d's Presence) to be in the midst of B’nei Yisroel.
This seems to be the message of the detailed tallying of booty from the war with Midian and the gifting of a percentage of it for holy purposes. In describing this all in Parshat Matos, the Torah narrates how the people brought the booty to Moses, who had directed its disposition for sanctified use – similar to the manner that the Torah describes the donations to the Mishkan in Parshat Vayakhel.
The tallying of the booty from the war with Midian mimics the tallying of the donated materials for the Mishkan as depicted in Parshat Vayakhel, and the phraseology in Parshas Matos regarding the handling of the booty before and after it was donated for holy purposes mirrors the phraseology found in the chapters that address construction of the Mishkan, in which varying forms of the word “terumah” (donation) appear. Please look at the texts of these parshiyot, and you will see the uncanny similarities.
The aftermath of the war with Midian, in which the booty was brought to Moses, carefully tallied, and in part donated for sanctified use, was a reenactment of the Mishkan process.
May we soon again show such commitment to Hashem and merit for the Shechinah to be revealed in our midst.