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On Discernment and Doormats – a summer dvar Torah for Parshas Matos-Masei


Every year we’re in Toronto, and for years before we made aliyah, my mother hosts a shalosh seudos for the ladies of our shul.  For some reason, my mother’s shalosh seudos always manages to fall out on a different parsha, so I can’t repeat what I’ve said in previous years.

If you’re curious, here are some of these masterpieces from previous years…

    The point being - I had to start from scratch looking at this week’s combined parsha – Matos-Masei.

    There is a very shocking section near the beginning of this week’s parsha. It’s connected with what we read two weeks ago in parshas Balak. Back then, the people of Moav and Midian sent women in to seduce the men of Bnei Yisrael – not just physically, our commentators tell us, but spiritually, leading the Jewish men into worshiping idols.

    Now, it’s time for revenge. Interestingly, we’re told to take revenge only against Midian and not against Moav, even though they were both complicit. Why? Perhaps because Ruth – and hence King David – were destined to descend from Moav. This makes sense if you look at the crime as a spiritual one rather than just an episode of physical seduction, because our spiritual redemption is somehow eventually going to come from Moav. So that may be one reason we’re having compassion on Moav and not taking revenge.

    But as for Midian – it seems there is no such thing as compassion when it comes to them. Moshe tells us, in the name of Hashem, to wipe out every single man, woman, and child from the nation of Midian. Yikes. But Bnei Yisrael don’t do it. They can’t, with the memory of Amalek’s attack still so very fresh in their minds. After all, Amalek’s attack was so insidious that it must be remembered as long as there is a living Jewish person to tell the tale.

    Now, lots of people have attacked Bnei Yisrael throughout history and we’re not commanded to wipe them out and also never to forget. What Amalek did that was so evil, we’re told in Sefer Devarim, was attack Bnei Yisrael from behind, striking the “hindmost” of us, not the soldiers and generals but those who were weak and old, the women, the children.

    Judaism teaches us all about protecting people who are weak: widows, orphans, converts, specifically, but also many others. We protect animals, not yoking them unevenly. We even take pity on those who are no longer alive: we bury our dead the same day out of compassion for those who can no longer fend for themselves.

    So when Hashem says to wipe out the women and children, we just can’t do it. It’s kind of understandable. Instead, Bnei Yisrael take the women and children captive and bring them to Moshe and Elazar. But when they arrive back at the camp, instead of being understanding, Moshe is furious. What is making him so mad? We’ll look at that in a bit.

    This incident connects with the story of Amalek in another way. We find almost the inverse of this story in Sefer Shmuel Alef (1 Samul 15). Here, the navi Shmuel delivers a message to Shaul Hamelech to wipe out an entire nation –Amalek.

    I want to pause here and point out that these two names – Shaul and Shmuel – are too similar. They say if you’re writing a novel, you shouldn’t have characters with similar names: Bill and Bob, Sue and Sal and Sam. Plus, I’ve always gotten Shmuel and Shaul mixed up. So I’m going to refer to them as Prophet Shmoo and King Saul. You’ll love it.

    So King Saul goes out and does what Prophet Shmoo told him to do cheerfully enough, wiping out Amalek, but at the last second, he too pauses– he can’t finish the job.

    What makes this story the inverse of the story in this week’s parsha? In our parsha, Bnei Yisrael have compassion for the defenseless – the women and children. In the story of King Saul, however, who does he save? Here, King Saul’s compassion is for Agag, the king of the Amalekites – in other words, far from being weak or defenseless, this is actually the most powerful Amalekite. The Hitler of Amalek, so to speak. The guy with his finger on the button.

    So far, we have looked at three different stories that are somewhat loosely connected, each of which teaches us something about how Judaism views compassion, and about the nature of revenge: this parsha, when Bnei Yisrael have compassion on women and children; the story of Amalek, when Amalek attack women and children, and the story of King Saul, when he has compassion on a powerful king.

    There’s a fourth story I want to mention, and it doesn’t seem connected to any of these, except perhaps tangentially. We will read it in a couple of months in Parshas Ki Seitzei. There’s an odd mitzvah here in Sefer Devarim which says that IF the Jewish people have to go to war, and IF we’re running around destroying stuff with axes, we should stop and be careful not to knock down fruit trees.

    Is this, too, a lesson about compassion? If so, it is a very strange one.

    From this lesson about warfare and trees, by the way, we learn out the entire Jewish tradition of bal tashchis – not wasting any useful or useable thing. It’s very popular with Jewish ecologists, and also with Jewish mothers who want their kids to be more gentle. Sometimes, we conveniently overlook the fact that the Rambam goes on to point out that we’re allowed to chop down anything but a fruit tree – and this comes, presumably, at a time when people, too, are being chopped down left, right, and centre.

    In the middle of war, according to the Rambam, you have to stop and look at the trees before you chop them down. That seems like a tall order, and more than a little strange.

    Rambam, too, by the way, connects this halacha about fruit trees with the siege on Midian in this week’s parsha. In his Mishneh Torah, in the collection of laws of Kings and Warfare (Sefer Melachim u-Milchamot), Maimonides writes, “Anyone who cuts down such a tree should be lashed. This does not apply only in a siege, but in all situations. Anyone who cuts down a fruit tree with a destructive intent, should be lashed.”

    So what’s the connection to this week’s parsha? In the Rambam’s book, these laws about trees come right after another law: When Jews attack a city (something we don’t do much of these days – or in Rambam’s day), we are forbidden to surround it on all four sides. We have to leave one side open so the enemy can get away. And the proof of this brought by the Rambam comes from this week’s parsha: Bnei Yisrael besieged Midian “as Hashem commanded Moshe.”

    “As Hashem commanded Moshe,” the Rambam explains, actually means “making sure some of them could get away.”

    Now, who is probably going to get away out that fourth side of the city? When a city is under attack, the big, brave, and strong people will be soldiers – so they’re all going to be on the front lines, fighting. And that leaves the weak and vulnerable to get away out the back.

    This is the way Jews do war – with compassion. Yet this understanding, while it’s very nice, still leaves us with a couple of questions. If compassion is so important to us as Jews that we have a law dictating that we must give our enemies an escape route, then why was Moshe angry when he saw that Bnei Yisrael had shown compassion towards the Midianite women and children? And perhaps we can ask also, Why was Prophet Shmoo angry when he saw that King Saul had had compassion on King Agag and saved him as a remnant of Amalek?

    Well, as we say nowadays, there is a fine line in the Torah, and in Jewish teaching, between being compassionate and being a doormat. And that is the crucial difference we must recognize, because misplaced compassion isn’t just misguided – it is complicit with evil.

    Bringing this back our parsha, it is absolutely true that normally, Judaism would have us take pity on women and children. So why does Moshe get angry? The answer lies in the back story here, in the parshiyos of the last couple of weeks. In this case, we clearly see that in fact, the women, and alas, probably the older children as well, were complicit in the crime of Balak in seducing and leading the Jewish people astray.

    We may have an imperative to protect the weak and defenseless, but not under all circumstances, because we also have an imperative not to allow the sanctity of our mission to turn us into holy doormats.

    I read a blog post on this week’s parsha which says, “We are taught that Judaism is a religion of peace, and so we read these words with some disbelief- how can a Torah of life and peace teach ethnic cleansing?”

    It might feel good to think we’re part of a “religion of peace.” We hear this claim made for certain other religions and it sounds very nice. And indeed, the word shalom, peace, is very deeply rooted in the Jewish spirit. Plus, “ethnic cleansing” sounds terrible. It’s what was done to us, so we know it’s not something we should do to others. Or is it?

    Here’s the thing: “Shalom,” meaning “peace,” is actually one of many names of Hashem. Peace, compassion, and all those nice, sweet things, are just a few of the attributes among many which we are to emulate in our Jewish lives. Discernment is another. Judgment is another.

    I don't believe the single word "peace" encapsulates Judaism any more than "Shabbat" or "kashrut" might. It is a religion "of" doing God's will. We can debate about what that will is, but sometimes, as in the difficult parts of this parsha or the command to wipe out Amalek, that Godly will comprises bloodshed and revenge as much as it does peace.

    A few months ago in Israel, four people were stabbed in a Tel Aviv art gallery by an 18-year-old from Nablus who was brought there by an organization called “Natural Peace Tours,” which aims to bring Palestinians to Israel for “grassroots negotiations.” At the time, an organizer associated with the organization expressed surprise, saying the man was from a “very respectable family, both financially and on a personal level.”

    This is compassion without discernment, misplaced compassion on a level with King Saul’s compassion for King Agag. Bringing a murderer to Tel Aviv in the name of peace is a form of complicity with evil.

    In the ghetto of Łódź, the head of the Judenrat, the Jewish council, was a man named Chaim Rumkowski. He was well-known for abusing his own power, and the Jews within his power, while remaining relatively comfortable and well-fed. In 1942, he made a speech around the words “Fathers and mothers: give me your children!” Rumkowski believed that by handing over the weak and vulnerable, he could save Jewish lives particularly his own. He was wrong, and in 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. Once he arrived, eyewitnesses later testified, he was beaten to death by Jewish prisoners.

    Do we feel sorry for Rumkowski because he was a Jew? Or do we feel anger because he was a Nazi collaborator, no less than if he had not worn the yellow star? I’m not saying they were right to kill him, but I do believe they were acting a little in the spirit of Pinchas, taking an opportunity to wipe out evil even if it comes in the form of a Jewish leader.

    In the story of Pinchas, as we read a few weeks ago, after the prophet Bilam tried to curse the Jews, he and King Balak came up with another plan, to lead the Jews into avoda zara through Midianite women. When their plan began to succeed, Moshe Rabbeinu was not only silent, but he actually stood weeping. This is one of only few times in the Torah that Rashi says “nitalmu mimenu halacha,” the halacha was concealed from Moshe.

    At a time when Moshe lacked the discernment to judge right from wrong, Pinchas leaped in and do it for him. For this, we’re told, Pinchas is rewarded by having a parsha named after him (in fact, some sources say that Moshe’s forgetting was intentional on Hashem’s part – forcing Moshe to step aside and give Pinchas his moment in the spotlight).

    When we are compassionate without discernment, sparing those who do not deserve it – those who are unrepentant, those who would repeat their crimes, we’re not being saintly; we’re just being foolish. Doormats.

    Now, I don’t want to end quite there. Revenge, bloodshed, war… these are gloomy topics for a lovely sunny Shabbos get-together. Happily, we also find hidden in this week’s parsha a kind of lovely counterpoint to these ideas of revenge and compassion.

    Earlier, we raised the question of why Moshe, and Prophet Shmoo, became so angry if – as Jews – we’re expected to be compassionate even in war, so much so that we’re compassionate with trees? We never really answered this question.

    Why was Prophet Shmoo the prophet angry in the story? Not at the idea of compassion itself.

    Here’s the thing: King Saul didn’t just save Agag. The Tanach tells us that after wiping out the men, women and children, he spared Agag, plus “best of the sheep and of the oxen.” Not only that, but he lied about it to Prophet Shmoo, announcing that he had done as commanded and completely wiped out Amalek. Clearly, King Saul’s motivations were not good. His actions weren’t really about compassion, but about commercial gain. Maybe he was planning a treaty between Israel and Amalek, with some delicious roast sheep to seal the deal.

    Prophet Shmoo was angry, then, not because King Saul was compassionate, but because he had made himself complicit in the evil of Amalek. Prophet Shmoo saw that he must step in, forced King Saul to bring Agag to him and then hewed him into a million pieces. No wonder, the story goes on to tell us, that these two friends never saw one another or spoke again in their lifetimes. Some things cannot and perhaps should not be forbidden.

    And now we come back to this week’s parsha. Why does Moshe get angry that the women and children have been saved? Not at the idea of compassion itself, but because the women and older children had been shockingly complicit in the evil of Midian, and should not have been allowed to live.

    When Moshe sees that they have been taken captive, he orders them all killed except the girls under three years of age. Pretty depressing stuff. Whether or not the women and children were complicit, this is still a reasonably troubling task for us as compassionate people. It takes great discernment to see the justice in it, if we can at all.

    But if we look closely, in the passuk where Moshe is ordering Bnei Yisrael to kill the remaining Midianites – against their better judgment – we see something interesting. Moshe uses an unusual wording. He says:

    וְעַתָּ֕ה הִרְג֥וּ כָל־זָכָ֖ר בַּטָּ֑ף וְכָל־אִשָּׁ֗ה יֹדַ֥עַת אִ֛ישׁ לְמִשְׁכַּ֥ב זָכָ֖ר הֲרֹֽגוּ:

    So now you shall kill every male child, and every woman who can lie… with a man you shall kill.

    Why does this passuk include the command “you shall kill” twice, once at the beginning and once at the end of the passuk? Rashi tells us the repetition comes to eliminate any possible confusion: Moshe wants to make very sure that everyone in these two categories dies, period.

    That’s pretty awful. It’s a hard passuk to read. And the strange wording demands that you sit with those terrible feelings and mull them over in your mind, not once, but twice.

    But then, when you do read it over, you actually discover something astonishing: Moshe’s emphasis underscores the fact that only those two groups of people had to die. Who was left? All the very young girls, we learn in the next passuk, were left alive.

    Not only were they left alive, we’re told, but they were converted and became part of the Jewish people.

    This is no small thing. Remember that we praise Miriam over and over for a similar action – when Pharaoh decreed that Jewish baby boys should be thrown into the River Nile, her parents Amram and Yocheved separated and she was the one who argued that they should get back together because while Pharaoh had decreed only against boys, their action had eliminated the possibility of baby girls as well.

    Compassion, Miriam teaches us, is not about saving everyone possible. It can’t be. Compassion must be connected with discernment, or it’s meaningless at best – and idiotic, or dangerous, at worst.

    Compassion means using the discernment Hashem gives us and choosing life whenever we can. Judging, because we can and we must. We must choose who should be spared but also use our discernment to wipe out evil wherever we can, like Pinchas, leaping in when Moshe could not or would not judge; like Prophet Shmoo, who did the deadly deed his king could not.

    The lesson of these stories is that we must leap in with sword in hand even if – no, especially if – a decision is morally troubling or problematic. Even if it’s not what people from a “religion of peace” might do. Even if no-one else wants to do it.

    In the Talmud, in Maseches Sanhedrin, we learn that when one saves a single soul, it is as if he or she has saved an entire world. Each one of those baby girls Moshe saved was at once a single soul and an entire world.

    Here, then, we find Hashem’s justice even in a story of revenge and bloodshed: the lesson is that new life can emerge even from disaster. New fruit can spring from fruit trees left unharmed in a city’s siege. There is no end to it: fruit falls to the ground in battle, seeds scatter, and new trees rise among the ruins.

    We see this theme again and again in the Torah and throughout Jewish history. Pharaoh decrees against the boys, but one baby boy is born who is hidden and survives to lead the Jewish People. Midian tries to wipe out the Jewish people and must be wiped out in return– but their daughters become the mothers of the Jewish nation. The Bais Hamikdash falls, the Jewish people scatter, but we, too, emerge from the ashes and after two thousand years, reclaim our homeland against all odds.

    We are fulfilling our mission by eliminating worlds of evil and building worlds of good. We partner with Hashem to build a world in His image. This is not a religion of peace – it is something so, so much better. It is a religion of using our discernment to consciously reshape the world according to His plan.

    Tonight, we begin the Nine Days – the most mournful period of the Jewish calendar, when we linger on the destruction of our Temple, tell the stories of the enemies who destroyed it, but also focus on our hopes for better days.

    Just as we must work hard to find the silver lining in the story of the Jewish people’s revenge on Midian (and when we do find the silver lining, it is sometimes bittersweet), may we all have the strength at this difficult time of year to discern the silver lining to our pain, exile, and distance from Hashem. May we build within ourselves this curious Jewish middah of compassion with discernment, which can perhaps help us understand our past and begin building a future when we will know the joy of being together with Hashem in our homeland of eretz Yisrael once again.

    Chazak, chazak, venischazeik – from strength to strength, may we be strengthened.

    Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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