Parshat Matot: Desert Battles and the Battles of Today

Israel finds itself under constant scrutiny. Allegations of Human Rights infringements are brandished against us and we are condemned in international fora for our failure to make peace. The dilemmas are huge and the discomfort for all Jews is enormous. Israel dares not ignore enemies who seek our destruction, but nor do we want to battle those with whom we could live in peace.[1]

Can the Torah inform our response? My teacher, Rabbi Sacks writes that ‘Jews do not live in the past, we live with the past’. We dare not slavishly follow biblical strategies; our realities are different, but we carry Torah teachings with us to sustain us with the resources to understand our responsibilities.

In this week’s parsha of Matot, we join Moshe as he attempts to formulate a sophisticated approach to the enemies who have been bating Israel.

God opens the conversation by calling for a battle against Midian. Moshe develops a wider strategy. He reasons that if he must attack the Midianites who only assisted in a war instigated by the tribe of Moab, logic dictates that he should also fight their senior partner; Moab. This is not a simple calculation. Moab were part of our family; descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot who were also promised a stake in the land. It would be painful to decimate them. But, according to the Maharal of Prague, Moshe believed that Moab’s vicious attacks on the Israelites made them an obstacle to our peace, security and identity. They forfeited their share in the land and became legitimate military targets.[2]

Moshe’s position was logical, but God saw things differently. He called on Moshe to take a more nuanced approach to our enemies. Moab may have instigated war against the Israelites, but this was not because of innate brutality, but genuine fear of being overrun. Moab’s conduct was reprehensible, but its enmity was understandable. God banned Moshe from launching this campaign.[3] In so doing, he taught us that not every opponent should be responded to as an enemy. Where possible, we must find mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence. [4]

Moreover, there was the issue of collateral damage. Even a depraved society can produce heroes; killing Moabites would wipe out their descendants too. God informed Moshe that Moab was scheduled to produce two heroines, Ruth and Na’amah whose place in history would justify an amnesty on their tribe.

IDF F-4E Phantom II
Peace is our goal, but the security and dignity of the Jewish people must be defended. Moshe pushes for a fair but robust military campaign against Midian.[5] As the soldiers return from battle, Moshe angrily berates them for not prosecuting it with enough vigor.

But here too, he falls prey to a mistake. Even when dealing with bloody battles, anger is not permitted. Our approach must be calculated and correct.

Moshe’s rage has repercussions beyond his denunciation of the army. As he starts teaching the people about the purity of the camp, almost in mid-sentence, he breaks off leaving Eliezer the Priest to take over the teaching.[6] The Talmud is sensitive to this interruption. It suggests that in his anger; wisdom and prophecy escaped him.[7] A people defined by its drive for holiness and ethics cannot, even under the most trying circumstances let go of its need for calm reflection.

But if Moshe has failings, he also has a profound understanding of the nature of Israel’s situation. His switching of God’s instructions to carry out ‘Israel’s revenge’[8] into a command to carry out ‘the revenge of the Lord’[9] is significant. Rashi presents it as almost triumphalist:

For anyone opposing Israel is reckoned as opposing the Holy One, blessed be He.[10]

But a glance at Rashi’s source reveals a very different picture. Moshe turns to God and says:

Master of the universe, If we had been uncircumcised, or idol worshippers, or had denied the mitzvot, the Midianites would not have hated us. They persecute us only on account of the Torah and the precepts which You have given us! Consequently, the vengeance is yours; and so I say: To take God’s vengeance on Midian.[11]

In other words, rather like our contemporary debates about terror attacks on Jews around the world, Moshe insists that the attacks on the Israelites are not territorial disputes; they are anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish people.

Defending our people is a national responsibility. Moshe demands that every tribe send troops to the battlefield; in a national conflict, our military must represent the whole of the Jewish people. [12] One more thing ensures our success; the end of the war is followed by a lecture on the laws of purity. For only when we live up to our spiritual responsibilities is our mission guaranteed.

Moshe, like us must navigate a complex series of moral dilemmas. He cannot afford to be driven by jingoistic slogans which will lead to unnecessary killing, nor can he accept pacifistic shrinking from measures essential to the defense of our people. He must seek peace where he can, but vigorously pursue mortal enemies dedicated to our destruction. For this, Moshe must think deeply, trust in God and he is entitled demand the courage and support of the entire Jewish people.



[1] See for example, Bereshit 15: 1 where after Abraham’s successful military campaign, God tells him not to be afraid. What was the victorious Abraham afraid of? The Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, 44:4 suggests that Abraham was perturbed by the thought, ‘Maybe there was a righteous or G-d-fearing man among those troops which I slew’. Similarly, as Jacob prepares to confront his brother Esau, we are told: Jacob was very afraid and distressed. (Bereishit 32: 7). Explaining the apparent repetition in the phrase, Rashi states with stunning sensitivity, that: Jacob was very afraid – lest he be killed. He was distressed – lest he kill others.

[2] Maharal, Gur Aryeh, super-commentary to Rashi, Bamidbar 31: 1

[3] Devarim 2:9

[4] The Gemara (Nedarim 38) says that Moshe became rich through the waste of the Ten Commandments meaning chippings that fell while chiseling the stone. See Rabbi Nachman of Breslov Likkutei Maharan 1:60 who explains that this waste is a metaphor for the mistakes and misunderstandings that occur while studying Torah. These are not waste, but a valuable by-product of the study of Torah. I am grateful to my friend Rabbi Alex Israel for this insight.

[5] The war with Midian is also the source of the Ramban’s ruling (mitzvot omitted by the Rambam number 5) that when attacking an enemy army, we may not surround them on all four sides, they must be given an escape route.

[6] Bamidbar 31: 21

[7] Pesachim 66b

[8] Bamidbar 31: 2

[9]  Ibid verse 3

[10] Rashi ad loc.

[11] Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar 31: 3

[12] Bamidbar 31:4. See also commentary of Rabbi S.R Hirsch to this verse where he discusses the responsibility of each tribe to contribute to the national defense.

rabbi gideon sylvester

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, a member of Beit Hillel, is the British United Synagogue’s rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain’s fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T’ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste

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3 Responses to Parshat Matot: Desert Battles and the Battles of Today

  1. Jonahan Samuel July 17, 2015 at 8:48 PM #

    I am printing this off and will read it with interest over Shabbat.

    • BeitHillel July 18, 2015 at 9:27 PM #

      Great – Enjoy!

  2. Jonathan samuel July 19, 2015 at 6:56 PM #

    I very much agree with your first paragraph and there is much in the rest of the article. However what continues to trouble me about the parasha is that the war against the midianites is far from sophisticated and is at odds with modern concepts of human rights or acceptable conduct in war. First the army defeat the midianites in battle and kill all the men. Then Moshe tells them they must kill all the women and male children which in a cold blooded act of what we would nowadays call genocide and war crimes, they then do.
    THis presents two concerns. One, the theological one of how could God act in such a way. Second, that modern Israeli rabbis and politicians may be tempted to draw on such behaviour in the modern context (as described in the article I have linked to by Melissa Weintrab). I do not have an answer, but I feel that by ignoring these troubling aspects of the text, you are “air brushing” it.

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