The book of Numbers records two attempts by the Midianite people to eradicate the Israelites, whose encroaching size they fear: first, by cooperating with their old enemies, the Moabites, in commissioning Balaam the prophet to curse the Israelites; second, by seducing the Israelites into lewd, idolatrous behavior that enrages God and calls down divine punishment. Moses’ great nephew, Pinchas the priest, catches a mixed Israelite-Midianite couple in flagrante delicto and kills them in an act of vigilantism. God’s rage then subsides and God’s plague upon the Israelites ends abruptly, leaving twenty four thousand people dead. After rewarding Pinchas with a peace pact for his actions, God commands Moses to eradicate the Midianites, a campaign which Moses carries out, according to Numbers 31. The following is my attempt at modern midrash, imaginative interpretation of the Torah to fill in textual gaps, thereby explaining the Torah’s teachings and values. Midrash often uses the ideas and parlance of the interpreter’s own time, that are then read back onto the biblical story. For the original story in context, read Numbers 22, 25, and 31.

The scene is the tent where our leader, Moses lives with his wife Tzipporah during the Israelites’ journey to the promised land. God has just ordered the Midianites’ destruction. Tzipporah and her father, Jethro are from Midian. We hear nothing about her in the Torah after Jethro reunites her with Moses, early after the Exodus. This midrash asks what happened to her.

Tzipporah (standing behind Moses, her fists clenched): I’m certain you understand that by carrying out this order you’re consigning every one of my family to a death sentence. You know these people, you have relationships with them, you learned leadership from my own father.

Moses (facing her with hostile impatience): What do you want from me? This is a divine order, and even if it wasn’t, you have to teach aggressors that you mean business. They attempted to destroy us twice, using insidious, covert intelligence no less.

Tzipporah: Spare me the spin doctoring. The girl whom Pinchas killed wasn’t intelligent, much less covert. She was a disturbed wild child who I knew back in Midian, a chieftain’s daughter who was always acting out very publicly to take digs at daddy. I’ll grant you that she put herself in harm’s way, but honestly, Moses, wiping out an entire community on her account? The princes of Midian used her. Go after them, bring them to justice, order targeted killings against them for all I care. I’m a patriot, I get the necessity of national self defense. But why kill everyone else?

Moses (attempts to hold her shoulders, but she pushes him away): Look…look at me! This is a matter of deterrence. We are dealing with an implacable, vindictive enemy, which is why God gave me this order. And even if I didn’t agree with God, I would still carry it out. I have no choice.

Tzipporah (barely whispering between gasping and weeping): You always have a choice, and your mouth just revealed what that choice is. You are Moses and God listens to you. Twice, that same enraged God confided in you His decision to destroy the entire Israelite community, but you convinced Him not to do that. You’ve had no problem making impassioned, defiant pleas to God in behalf of the people you love. Isn’t real moral leadership about finding the humanity in the people that you hate as well? How do you know God isn’t testing exactly that resolve of yours, the way He did in the past, even in the midst of His worst anger? And what about my family, the same people who nurtured you when you were a fugitive? They’re your family, and they’ll die if you execute this order.

Moses (turning away, despondent): I don’t have any answers for you, Tzipporah. All I know is that twenty four thousand of our own people are dead on account of Midianite provocation that led to all of this ugliness. This is how God is. One moment, He orders us to love one another, especially the stranger, the next moment we’re dying from a plague, and the next moment we’re doing a census and exercises for a military offensive against people we’ve never met. The Lord demands whole hearted, steadfast loyalty of us, and destroying Midian is part of that demand. My hands are tied.

Tzipporah (throwing some items into a sack): Well, mine aren’t. (She moves toward the tent opening).

Moses (trying to hold her): No, you can’t go back home, you’ll be killed! (Tzipporah breaks free and runs away.)

Maimonides refers to the Jewish people as rahmanim bnei rahmanim, merciful descendants of merciful ancestors. We acquired this collective character by living God’s best values that are reflected in our sacred texts, and by learning how to interpret God’s commands. Midrash – each generation’s active reading of the Torah – never occurs in a vacuum; it is shaped by our ongoing history of suffering and liberation, by our struggles with cultural, moral and religious challenges. Reflecting upon the story of Moses’ war against Midian which is also our story, we can see that dark shadow self of demonic potential that stands over us and all nations: the tribalism that drove Midian’s quest to eliminate our people and that may have swallowed Moses’ family in a cloud of vengeance. We must never stop reading these difficult texts, and we must do so with critical eyes. They, no less than “Love your neighbor as yourself,” are our inheritance which we ignore at great peril to our humanity. Paraphrasing my teacher, Sister Katherine Hanley, only by owning our demons do we hold on to our angels as well.