148/929 My Night-time Struggle with Chapter 31

I’m not afraid to struggle with the Torah. To be “Yisrael” means to have enough faith in yourself that you can be straight (yashar) with God, and enough faith in God that He can handle you wrestling with Him a bit.

Like Yaakov with the angel, I find myself locked in a struggle with chapter 31 that essentially ends in a deadlock. On the one hand, I won’t let go of my moral intuitions. I won’t accept that there’s no moral issue with slaughtering man, woman, and child, leaving only young girls, and those as captives, while we get rich on the spoils of war. I can’t see anyone in the moral world I inhabit seriously endorsing these practices as moral nowadays. That’s a fact. But, on the other hand, I know this is a Good Book from a Good God, and I’m not ready to reject it.

Are you calling the Torah immoral, I begin to argue with myself?

Hem. Haw.

…The Ramban says that Moshe didn’t tell them what to do, they decided on their own…

…but then Moshe himself chastises them for not killing the women.

…but God didn’t tell them what to do, only to oppress the Midianites, to take revenge on them

…but since when does God endorse revenge?

…but Moshe refuses to accept it as Israel’s revenge, and reframes it as God’s revenge, according to the Midrash, sending only those who were not directly involved in the sin with the Midianite women. He distances this war from himself, a Midianite expatriate, as well as from Yehoshua, the future leader of Israel. There is something in him that is conflicted about this war as well.

…and anyways, that’s what the standards of war were back then.

…but does that mean I need to think it’s moral now? And couldn’t the Torah demand more of us than the ethics of the time, as it often doe?

…perhaps it does, by declaring the people who killed impure, by exiling them from the camp, by demanding they undergo a purification process…

And so it goes, until morning, when one side says, leave me go, it’s time for the morning prayers, and the other side says — not until you bless me. The blessing? “Yaakov will no longer be your name, but rather Israel, for you have struggled with God and man, and you can do it.” Don’t be afraid, my servant Yaakov. Struggle is the name of the game. And we’re up to the challenge.

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This is my daily blog in dialogue with, struggling with, interpreting, applying, living and loving the chapter of the day on the wonderful journey known as the 929 project (929.org.il). Won’t you come along with me?

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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