27 Tammuz 5780/July 15, 2020
This double parasha contains powerful moments in the narrative of Israel’s travels through the midbar. The parasha opens with the power of speech-acts and the binding nature of language. The tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiate with Moshe to settle outside of the borders of the land of Israel. Moshe chastises them, resulting in a model that allows for national solidarity along with a balanced recognition of Jewish life inside and outside of the land. The geo-political borders of the land are described in the context of the impending conquest, rather than the mythic borders that God described to Avraham in a vision. The laws of inheritance, initiated by the daughters of Tzelofchod, are clarified. Way-stations are named as the travels are reviewed, enabling the reader to re-trace and re-live our journey. (Interesting that Horev, Mt. Sinai, is not mentioned.) Tribal leaders are named in anticipation of receiving portions of land after the conquest, Leviim are allocated cities, and six areas are designated as cities of refuge in cases of manslaughter.
Were one to take a long view of the entire book of Bemidbar, it narrates the journey from slavery to the struggles of leadership and independence, spanning two generations. With the advent of the second generation, Bemidbar introduces the power of myth and memory. The first generation had direct experiences of Egypt, slavery, oppression, Ma’amad Har Sinai, the golden calf, the complaining about food, the yearning to return to Egypt, and the rebellion of Korach. It was for the second generation to select their memories of this journey towards freedom, and to learn how to establish and maintain a sacred community as a free and responsible society. In some ways, the entire narrative of this young nation, from Shemot through Devarim, spanning two generations, is organized in a sweeping chiastic literary structure. The first generation leaves Egypt and arrives at Mt. Sinai. The second generation re-experiences Mt. Sinai in the book of Devarim and prepares to enter the land of Canaan.
The second generation begins with the death of Aharon, the death of Miriam, the drying up of prophecy, and the transition from Moshe to Yehoshua. Their challenges are not with their memories of Egypt, but in their encounters with other nations. They encounter hostilities and complications with Arad, Edom, Moav, Sichon and Og. Of all of these encounters, the most horrific and challenging, however, is the war with Midian. In the wake of Benai Yisrael’s seduction by the women of Midian, their turning to the idolatry of Ba’al Peor, and the avenging of divine rage by Pinchas, God commands Moshe to annihilate the entire nation of Midian. The genocide of Midian, justified by divine command, remains the most horrific text in the Torah, and it prefigures as the centerpiece of these parshiot. It is as if the Torah is telling us: the world cannot exist with the nation of Midian.
The tradition of apologetic commentary is robust. Many commentators argue that Midian was so evil that they deserved divine punishment. A different reading suggests that the text, albeit with historical analogues, is ultimately farcical. The text states that all of the Midianite men were killed, fantastical numbers of women and animals were taken captive, an astounding quantity of gold was plundered, and all without a single Israelite loss. Midian reappears almost immediately again in the historical books of early prophets, so clearly the nation was not annihilated. Neither of these readings, however–that Midian deserved their total annihilation, or as a catharsis for the frustrations of Israel through a phantasmagoric military triumph–speak constructively to the lessons we need to learn in today’s world.
We cannot afford to read an authoritative text as a justification of genocide. Nor can we afford to indulge in fantasies that stimulate hatred and fear of cultures that are different than our own, or even anathema to us. It is imperative to acknowledge that wars were and are horrific, without any romantic image of heroism or righteousness. It is equally important to acknowledge that in all likelihood our ancestors perpetrated a genocidal attempt to annihilate Midian, according to norms of ancient warfare. However, our world needs us to read a different lesson into this text for today.
This was a war against idolatry. Idolatry, as I have written, is an evil that fosters a narrow, inflexible mind-set. I wrote last week, in parashat Pinchas, that paganism is not just worshipping an idol. It is serving an ossified vision of reality. Pagans worship a static view of the world in which everyone and everything must fit their singular image of a god. The world, then, does not celebrate the beauty of diversity, of change, or of mystery. The world is singular, narrow, small, and intolerant. It feels nostalgic, familiar, and safe, with no room for anything or anyone who is “different.” When Pinchas killed Zimri and Cozbi, he responded to the crisis of the moment. If we are to read the war against Midian as the outcome of that moment, it is a war against the deeper problem of the allure of idolatry and its seductive power.
In his introduction to the Torah, Ramban claims that the entire Torah is the name of God, written out in a narrative fashion that enables us to read God’s name in human language. He wrote: The entire Torah is God’s names. All of the letters of God’s name were transposed into other words as if to turn the entire Torah into a parable….It is because of this that a single missing letter invalidates a sefer Torah from being read even if that missing letter does not affect the meaning of a word….Since the Torah is black fire on white fire…it is one continuous name…. An implication of this mystical hermeneutic is the ability to approach the text of Torah with an infinite number of authentic readings. As the scholar of Jewish mystical tradition, Joseph Dan wrote:
Ramban’s statement that the whole Torah is nothing but the names of God followed by the more extreme statement that the whole Torah is the name of God, achieves one thing: it denies the originality of the divine message cast in language as the original stratum of the Torah, and sees it as a secondary, accidental one. The whole vast body of midrashic hermeneutics is not a decipherment of more and more layers of meaning within the text of a meaningful message, but all these layers are superimposed on a text that is devoid of any original meaning… While the midrash treats the Torah as an inexhaustible text of infinite meanings, the mystic who identifies it with the secret name of God actually treats the text of the Torah as a huge blank scroll, as far as meaning is concerned, on which any meaning can be written. (Jewish Mysticism: volume 3, The Modern Period, Joseph Dan, pg. 148)
In the spirit of such an approach, I want to suggest a reading of the genocide of Midian that we need today. That horrific war, and the battle against the seductive powers of idolatry, must be read not as an external, literal war of nations, but as an internal struggle with ourselves, located within our hearts and consciousness. More than ever before, the struggle against hatred, racism, violence, and fear require people to take hold of themselves, of their assumptions, beliefs, and perspectives, and to uproot the source of idolatrous seductions.
Such a reading of the war against Midian was implied by the author known as the Shem Mishmuel, a collection of homiletical teachings on the Torah and Jewish holidays delivered by Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, the second Sochatchover Rebbe, between the years 1910-1926. He moves a reading of the war in this direction. He wrote:
It seems to me that according to what I have already said, the power of Midian is the evil power of externality that infects brothers with hatred (madanim/מדנים/midyanim/מדינים). This was the same power that resulted in the sale of Yosef after the Torah wrote that the brothers hated him and were jealous of him. This power nourished those deep feelings of hatred until they resulted in an act of hatred. That is why the Torah’s language is, Midianim sold him to the Egyptians [when originally the text said that Yishmaelim bought him.]…This same power of hatred overwhelmed and ruled the leaders of Israel that resulted in the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem…The rabbis describe the quality of the relationship between the people when they taught: The people ate and drank together, and then stabbed each other in the back….(Talmud Yoma) The same led to the destruction of the second Temple as a result of pure hatred. Frankly, this same power of hatred is still dancing amongst us to this very day, and will be resolved only with the advent of the prophet Eliyahu, the harbinger of redemption….Until that time, our hearts are divided and alienated from each other….
ונראה עפי”מ שהגדנו כבר שכח מדין הוא כח חיצוני רע מאד המשלח מדנים בין אחים, והוא שלט מאז במכירת יוסף אחרי שכתוב וישנאו אותו ויקנאו בו אחיו, משכו עליהם את כח הרע הזה עד שיצא לפועל דבר המכירה, וז”ש והמדנים מכרו אותו אל מצרים, ואף שבמדרש שמאת ה’ היתה זאת כשרצית נתת בלבם לשנוא כשרצית נתת בלבם לאהוב, היינו ששליטת כח רע זה הי’ ברשות ורצון השי”ת וכמ”ש קהלת ט’ אשר הצדיקים והחכמים ועבדיהם ביד האלקים וגו’, כי זולת שכך הי’ רצון השי”ת לא הי’ אפשר לכח הרע זה לשלוט בהם כ”כ, כי השנאה והקנאה שבינם לבינו מצד עצמם לא היתה עולה כ”כ מדריגות עד למכירה, וכח רע זה שלט בנשואי ישראל בחרבן בית ראשון וכמ”ש מגורי אל חרב הי’ עמי ואמרו ז”ל בש”ס יומא אלו בנ”א שאוכלין ושותין זע”ז ודוקרין זא”ז בחרבות שבשפתותיהם ומסיק שם האי בנשואי ישראל הוא דהוה, והיינו שהחריבה את בית שני שאמרו ז”ל שנחרב בשביל שנאת חנם, ועדיין מרקד בינינו עד שנזכה לאליהו ז”ל כמ”ש והשיב לב אבות על בנים ולב בנים על אבותם, ומכלל שמקמי הכי הי’ פירוד לבבות ביניהם אף שמטבע הבנים להיות נגררין אחר האבות ואהבה ביניהם, מ”מ כח מדין עדיין שורר בינינו והוא המביא לכל זה כאשר אנו רואים בעוה”ר זה בעינינו, ופינחס זה אליהו שנצחום בראשונה הוא יעשה לכח רע זה כלי’ באחרונה והשיב לב אבות וגו’:
And then, he continued:
So here, in light of the enduring war against the power of hatred, Jews should be different. The Jewish people should be as one human being with a single heart. However, this occurred only at Mt. Sinai. Since that moment, every stop and encampment along the way [throughout the sojourn in the wilderness] was filled with fractious contention and in-fighting. The Maharal already said that Jews should know better; Jews should be rational, they should think…However, Jews still remain uncomfortable trying to unite as one, in commonality with each other. They achieved that only at Mt. Sinai, since there they succeeded in nullifying their individual needs and desires, they nullified their own egos to embrace the spiritual reality that unites them together.
והנה למלחמה עם כח רע זה היו צריכין להיות ישראל להיפוך מזה אלא להיות כולם כאיש אחד בלב אחד, אבל לא מצינו זה זולת במ”ת, אבל שאר כל החניות היו בתרעומת ובמחלוקת, הגם כי כבר אמרנו בשם מהר”ל שזה למעלת ישראל שהם שכליים והיו דור דיעה ואין דעתן של בנ”א שוות, וע”כ אין נוח להם כ”כ להתאחד זולת בביטול גמור להשי”ת בבחי’ שהיו בשעת מ”ת, מ”מ דור באי הארץ הי’ יותר נוח להם להתאחד כידוע למבינים ומ”מ היו כל החניות בתרעומת ובמחלוקת, ונראה שזה הי’ בא מכח רע של מדין, וזה הי’ עיכוב למלחמת מדין:
Rabbi Bornsztain read the narrative to be about the struggle between externality and interiority. Our ancestors were overwhelmed, seduced and intoxicated by the “evil power of externality.” In today’s terms, they were seduced by their own desires and identities. They were seduced by their own egos. This was true of Joseph’s brothers. Ego destroyed the holy temples of Jerusalem, and ego seduced the Israelites with the Midianite women. Midian, per se, was not evil; Moshe married a Midianite woman, Tzipporah, and his father-in-law Yitro was their priest. The problem is ego. Ego is what ossifies a belief about oneself into an idol. Ego is what nourishes, aids and abets arrogance. Ego is what infects relationships with the malignancies of mistrust, jealousy, fear, and then, eventually hatred. It is not accidental that the parasha opens by describing the power of speech-acts and language. Once we become acclimated to hate-speech, hate-acts are not far behind. Today’s world, indeed, needs us to set an example by waging war against Midian, against the “evil power” of ego that fuels fear, hatred and violence. Only at Mt. Sinai did we feel our inter-related humanity, at one with each other. And if we read the Torah not only as the narrative of the Jewish people, but ultimately as a narrative of humanity, every person, every society and every nation in today’s world should wage that war. It might be that the first tactic to combat ego is to remain silent and listen to each other. To stop talking, and just listen for understanding. If we start this way, combating the seductive, idolatrous dimensions of ego might bring us back from the edge of a literal annihilation that God has hoped humanity would avoid since the beginning of time.