Ari Sacher

“Crime of Passion” Parashat Mattot- Masaei 5783

On June 20, 2023, two Palestinian terrorists pulled up to a “Hummus Eliyahu” restaurant at a Delek servo station in the town of Eli, north of Jerusalem. They opened fire on the restaurant and on people filling their gas tanks. Nachman Mordoff and Elisha Anteman, both 17, and 21-year-old Harel Masood were slain while eating at the restaurant and 64-year-old Ofer Fayerman was shot dead while pumping gas. Four others were injured. One of the terrorists sped off in a stolen vehicle while his accomplice was killed by an armed Israeli who happened to be adding air to his tires. A manhunt ensued and the IDF quickly found and killed the second terrorist near the town of Shechem. Revenge was soon to come. The next day, hundreds of young Israelis went on rampages in the nearby Palestinian villages of Turmus Ayya, Umm Safa and Urif, setting ablaze homes, cars, and agricultural fields, and in some cases shooting at residents. The Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health said that one Palestinian was killed and another twelve were wounded. Israeli officials are uncertain as to who actually killed the Palestinian as witnesses placed him more than a half a kilometre from where the shooting allegedly took place. Twelve Israelis were arrested under suspicion of involvement in violent attacks. This essay has absolutely nothing to do with this incident.

After Balaam the prophet unsuccessfully tries to curse the Jewish People, he offers a word of advice to the Moabites and Midianites who hired him. He suggests that their young women could be used to seduce Jewish men and to entice them to worship their pagan god Ba’al Peor. Balaam’s plan is implemented with great success. In an ensuing plague, 24,000 Israelites die. The plague ends only after Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, slays Zimri, the Prince of the Tribe of Simeon, who is engaged in an illicit act with a Midianite princess.

Revenge was soon to come. Immediately after the plague, the nation prepares for war. G-d tells them [Bemidbar 25:17-18] “Cause distress to the Midianites[1] and [then] you shall smite them. For they distress you with their plots which they contrived against you in the incident of Peor”. In an earlier essay[2], we explained that a smear campaign was launched against the Midianites to vilify them. In the Portion of Mattot, the Israelites finally strike back. Moshe is ordered to take one thousand men from each tribe and to send them into battle against the Midianites [31:3] “To carry out the revenge of G-d against Midian”.

Moshe does as he is told[3] and then he adds some more ammunition [Bemidbar 31:6]: “Moshe sent them… to the army, them along with Pinchas the son of Eleazar the priest (kohen) to the army, with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding in his possession.” Rashi[4] teaches that Moshe sent Pinchas because seeing as he had begun the war of vengeance against Midian, it was only right that he be there to end it.

The war goes swimmingly. The Midianites are routed. The Israelites kill all of the males, including the five kings of Midian, they burn down their cities, they seize their women and their property and they bring them back to Moshe. When the soldiers return to camp, Moshe sees the women and he is irate [Bemidbar 31:15-16]: “Did you allow all the females to live?! These were the same ones who were involved with the Children of Israel on Balaam’s advice to betray G-d over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of G-d.” He commands the soldiers to immediately kill all women of child-bearing age.

What went wrong? Why did the Jewish soldiers not kill the Medianite women? Did they not understand the reason they were fighting? Did they forget the plague? And what about Pinchas? Moshe specifically sent him because of his previous act of zealotry. Where did his zeal go? Why doesn’t Moshe criticize Pinchas with the rest of the men? The Ramban[5] suggests that Moshe wanted to but in order not to impinge on Pinchas’s honour, he remained silent.

The Or HaChaim Hakadosh [6] asks why Pinchas did not kill the Midianite women. He answers that Pinchas and the battalion leaders believed that the Midianite women had seduced the Jewish men only at the behest of their husbands. The women had no say in the matter – they were acting under duress and so they could not be considered guilty. Moshe agreed with this point but he noted that the women had gone beyond their orders by enticing the Jewish men to commit idolatry[7]. For this sin, teaches the Or HaChaim, they should have been killed.

The truth is that Pinchas had very good reason not to kill the Midianite women. G-d did not include him in the battalion sent off to fight the Midianites. It was Moshe who added him to the lineup card. Further, Moshe never explicitly tells the soldiers to kill the women. He does not even explicitly tell them what their mission is. All Moshe tells the soldiers is that they must “Carry out the revenge of G-d against Midian”. What does that mean, anyway? In the Book of Devarim, the Torah clearly lays out the general rules of war: The enemy is first called upon to throw down his arms and to become slaves. Assuming that the enemy does not surrender, the Torah commands [Devarim 20:13-14] “You shall strike all its males with the edge of the sword. However, the women, the children, and the livestock, and all that is in the city, all its spoils you shall take for yourself”. This is nearly word for word what the Israelite battalion did to the Midianites. Why was Moshe angry? Why did he expect them to act any differently than they acted?

We can gain a better understanding by looking back at Pinchas’s killing of Zimri and the Midianite princess that stopped a plague. What gave Pinchas the right to murder Zimri? The answer is that according to normative halacha, a person who openly engages in sexual relations with a non-Jew is subject to the death penalty. There is, however, one condition: the person who does the killing must do so out of passion. The Torah differentiates between a crime of passion and premeditated murder. The Torah is cognizant that in certain circumstances a person is driven by a visceral instinct so strong that it eclipses his ability to reason. Now if his passion is caused by a very small list of sins[8], then the killing is justified. But if there is deliberation of any kind, if the would-be killer stopped even for a moment to consider his actions, then he is forbidden from killing the perpetrator. The Rambam, writing in Hilchot Issurei Bi’ah [12:5] adds two additional stipulations: “[1] The zealous person can strike [the fornicator] only at the time of relations… If, however, [the transgressor] withdraws, he must not be slain… [2] If the zealous person comes to ask permission from the court to slay him, they do not instruct him [to do so].” The zealot’s actions are permitted if and only if his crime was truly a crime of passion. If he stops to ask for permission, it is a clear sign that he has had time to reflect upon his action. His mind is no longer clouded by passion and so he must lay down his arms.

The war against Midian was different from all other wars fought by the Jewish People during their forty years in the desert. The war against Midian was a war of retribution. Moshe believed that Pinchas’s passion would be beneficial to the soldiers carrying out that retribution. Each soldier faced the Midianites with his own array of emotions. They might have had friends who died in the plague. They were upset and enraged. They wanted to exact vengeance upon those hated Midianites. But when they went into battle as an organized army, this in itself was evidence that their minds were no longer clouded by passion. They would utterly defeat the Midianites but vengeance would be left to G-d.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] The Moabites were let off scot free due to a halachic technicality

[2] Pinchas 5761

[3] This is not a trivial statement as Moshe was told that after the war against Midian he would die.

[4] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[5] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the thirteenth century.

[6] Rabbi Chaim Ibn Atar, known as the Or HaChaim Hakadosh, who lived in Morocco and in Israel during the first half of the eighteenth century

[7] As a sort of quid pro quo for their sexual services, see Rashi ad loc.

[8] See the Mishna in the Tractate of Sanhedrin [9:6]

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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