Hard Questions in the War on Midian

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This is the last Shabbat the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora will read different parashiyyot, so I look forward to the renewed unity of next week!

Stakeholders in the War Against Midian: Moshe

At the beginning of the second reading of the parsha, Hashem tells Moshe to take vengeance on Midian for their role in the tragedies of the end of Parshat Balak, seducing Jewish men to the point the men and women worshipped Pe’or, with the ensuing plague. Meshech Hochmah identifies a web of people invested in this war, each in their own ways.

First, in 31;2, Hashem informs Moshe he will pass away (be gathered unto his people) after the war. I think because there is no obvious reason to link the two, Meshech Hochmah says the war had to happen in Moshe’s lifetime lest people infer he would not have been willing to lead it. His wife born of Midian, people would have said he retained an improper allegiance, so Hashem made sure the war happened in his lifetime. [He is seeing another example of a tendency Rashi identifies early in Devarim, some or much of the nation found flaws in Moshe wherever they could.]

Stakeholders in the War Against Midian: The Jews

In describing whose vengeance is being taken, Hashem says it is the Jews’, 31;2, where Moshe gathers the soldiers to take God’s vengeance, 31;3. I would have thought the simple explanation would suffice, God “cared” about the insult and injury to the Jews in the Midianites’ seducing them to sexual immorality and idolatry, and the Jews cared (or Moshe was teaching them to care) about the insult to God’s honor in the Midianites’ actions.

Meshech Hochmah adds a piece. Really, God should have “wanted” the war to redress the hillul Hashem, the sacrilege to God’s Name, because we know of the significance of sanctifying God’s Name (or the reverse) from many places in Scripture. God here would have let it slide, as it were, because it would have counted as yissurim, atoning suffering for sin, for the people, reducing their punishment in the World to Come.

Problem was, Jews died because of it, and their blood had to be avenged. God is sending the army to avenge that; for His own Name, God would have preferred the Jews gain the atonement of suffering, have more pure reward in the World to Come.

Stakeholders in the War Against Midian: Hashem

Moshe took the opposite perspective on behalf of the people, they preferred to stand up for the sanctity of God’s Name even at the cost of losing their yissurim atonement, delaying their punishment to the next World. Punishment of the righteous also inherently sacrileges God’s Name [because people say, look at so-and-so, s/he’s so righteous and suffering for no good reason, what kind of God would do that?], enough of a problem for the righteous, they prefer it not happen.

A passage in Avodah Zarah 4a makes the point in general terms, based on Hoshe’a 7;15, and Meshech Hochmah is spotting an example of it here, where everyone involved is more concerned with the other, Hashem looking out for Moshe’s reputation and the need to avenge the deaths of Jews, Moshe and the people focused on restoring respect and awareness of God’s Name, power, and role in the world.

[It’s like what they say about a good marriage, each partner thinks primarily of the other; if both do that, the marriage thrives, as we always hope will this “marriage” of Hashem and the Jewish people.]

Leaving an Escape Route—Compassion or Good Military Strategy

During the war, the Torah makes a point of the Jews’ conducting it as Hashem commanded Moshe, 31;7, a phrase Ramban thought established the obligation to leave an escape route for any city the Jews besieged. Ramban points out Rambam did codify this rule, Laws of Kings 6;7, although he did not count it in the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot. Apparently, Rambam saw it as a detail of an existing mitzvah rather than a mitzvah of its own, where Ramban thought its having its own verse meant it was a separate mitzvah.

Meshech Hochmah suggests Ramban thought the escape route was similar to the idea of suggesting a peaceful resolution before voluntary wars (Aseh 190 in Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot). Here, too, the Jews were supposed to help avoid loss of life by giving a way to flee, even if the enemy had refused peace overtures before.

For Ramban, this is compassion, separate from (and perhaps weakening, since it means the siege would not be complete) the conduct of the war. Meshech Hochmah thinks Rambam saw it as part of the war itself, in that a cornered enemy, knowing the only alternative is death, will fight harder, where the temptation of escape will weaken their resolve, since why fight a hopeless battle when they can just flee?

[I enjoy the insight of the escape route both signaling compassion and being a psychological tool in the conduct of the war itself. As for inserting that into the debate between the two, I am not as convinced. Rambam lists this in the rules of war for Jews, without any suggestion it had strategic qualities—the previous paragraph said we are not to offer peace terms to Ammon or Moav before we go to war with them, because of a verse, and the paragraph after discusses the rule against cutting down fruit trees as part of laying siege. Placement and phrasing give no support for Meshech Hochmah’s reading; it seems possible Rambam did not count it because he generally does not count parts of a mitzvah independently.

To me, that Jews retain their interest in saving as many lives as possible while battling their enemies can also count as their rules of engagement. And, in reverse, I could imagine Ramban counting this required war strategy as its own mitzvah as well. Meshech Hochmah does remind us never to be overly confident we have found the reason for a mitzvah, since he has plausibly shown us another way to see it.]

Limitations on the Responsibility of Leaders

The Jews come back from the war with human spoils, including women, enraging Moshe, because they were the cause of the sin that started this whole cycle, 31;14. Meshech Hochmah notices Moshe’s ire does not turn to Pinhas, the accompanying kohen who should have told the people what booty was and was not permitted.

He starts his explanation with one important and challenging assumption: leaders are accountable for a failure to lead only where they had the plausible ability to direct the nation away from whatever wrong the people committed.  [This is another of his ideas where I can think of sources that would seem to disagree but is too interesting to get caught in the back and forth, since he knew all those sources as well. We’ll just consider what he is saying.]

In our case, he thinks Pinhas was not able to remonstrate with the people at the time, so he bore no blame for what they did.

If You Don’t Playa the Game…

When I was growing up, Earl Butz was Secretary of Agriculture, and lost his job because he reacted to some pronouncement of the Pope’s about population control by saying, “He no playa the game, he no maka the rules.” Meshech Hochmah envisions the Jews saying something similar to Pinhas, rejecting his ruling on women captives because he couldn’t have done so anyway, because a kohen may not marry a non-Jewish woman/convert, regardless of the rules of war.

The military leaders could and should have stopped the people, so Moshe spoke to them.  (Meshech Hochmah thinks the leaders later reported to Moshe the results of their investigation, their having found that none of their soldiers had actually taken the women as battlefield wives.)

But I’m still back at the way the people were ready to assume Pinhas would make up rules for them to match the restrictions on himself, was petty enough to say, if I can’t have these women, neither can you. And Meshech Hochmah being confident that was enough to absolve Pinhas of his obligation to do anything about it.

When we insistently go wrong, sometimes we cannot blame our leaders for the consequences.

For Matot, we had the multiple parties to the war on Midian, the conduct of the war in a compassionate or militarily wise way, and who was on the hook for when the Jews handled the aftermath of the war incorrectly.


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