“Shake, Shake, Shake” Parashat Mattot-Masaei 5780

The Jewish People finally even the score with the Midianites, who are directly responsible for a plague that killed twenty-four thousand people. After a short and decisive battle, the Midianites are routed. Their five kings are killed along with all of the Midianite men. Everyone else is taken captive and the Midianite possessions are plundered. Anything else that remained was burnt to the ground.

The soldiers return triumphantly to base camp with booty in hand. They are commanded to take an inventory of all of the booty and to divide it equally between the soldiers and the rest of the people. The soldiers must take one five hundredth of their share of the booty and donate it to the Priests (Kohanim). Similarly, the rest of the people must donate one fiftieth of their half of the booty to the Levites. And then the Torah goes ahead and does something strange: First it enumerates the booty [Bemidbar 31:32-35]: 675,000 sheep, 72,000 head of cattle, 61,000 donkeys, and 32,000 slave girls. Then it describes how much of the booty the soldiers received and how much they donated to the Kohanim [Bemidbar 31:36-40]: 337,500 sheep, of which 675 went to the Kohanim, 36,000 head of cattle, of which 72 went to the Priests, 30,500 donkeys, of which 61 went to the Kohanim, and 16,000 slave girls, of which 32 went to the Kohanim. And then the Torah records similar calculations for the amount of booty that the rest of the nation received and the amount that they donated to the Levites. Why does the Torah spend so much time and effort on simple arithmetic? Why didn’t the Torah just say “The Children of Israel did as they were commanded”, as it does so many times, and let us do the math?

This question is asked by a number of the classic commentators[1] but in the this lesson I want to zoom into the explanation of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe finds it striking that the amount of booty was divisible by one thousand for each and every type: sheep, cattle, donkeys and slave girls. What are the chances of that happening? The odds are nearly infinitesimal[2]. This coincidence can only be explained miraculously. Moreover, this miracle took place over time. Imagine the Midianite shepherd who is in the market for sheep. He goes to a sheep salesman, who is having a sale on sheep, and he purchases fifteen of them. Those fifteen sheep eventually became part of the 675,000 sheep that were captured by the Israelite soldiers. What would have happened if that Midianite who was in the market for sheep did not have enough money for fifteen sheep, so he purchased only fourteen. As a result, the total number of Midianite sheep would have been reduced by one to only 674,999, a number not divisible by one thousand. G-d had to make sure that didn’t happen. The Rebbe teaches that G-d miraculously ensured that the total number of booty would be divisible by one thousand, for all four types of booty.

Why was this miracle even necessary? What would have been so terrible had the amount of booty not been divisible by one thousand? Well, for starters, there would have been booty that did not contribute to the donation made to the Kohanim. For instance, if the number of sheep had been only 674,999, then the Kohanim would have received only 674 sheep instead of 675, and 999 sheep would not have resulted in a corresponding donation to the Kohanim. What would have been so terrible about that? The Rebbe answers that the Torah commanded [Bemidbar 31:29] “You shall take from their half and give it to Elazar the Kohen as a gift to G-d”. The Torah commanded that everything “from their half” should go into the calculation of the donation to the Kohanim[3]. If the numbers were not divisible by one thousand, then not everything would result in a donation to the Kohanim. In order to enable the commandment to be implemented precisely as it was defined, G-d had to ensure that all numbers were divisible by one thousand. The Rebbe concludes his explanation by saying that this teaches a great lesson: a person must never feel that a particular commandment is too difficult for him to keep. He should be aware that G-d works behind the scenes to ensure that everything is in place so that a person will be able to keep all of His commandments. All that person has to do is pull the trigger.

Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen, who lived about two hundred years ago in Dvinsk (Daugavpils, Latvia), writing in the “Meshech Chochma”, offers a more pragmatic solution. Rav Meir Simcha suggests that while the numbers of sheep, cattle, donkeys, and slave girls that appear in the Torah are all divisible by one thousand, their actual numbers were higher. The reason all of the numbers in the Torah are divisible by one thousand is that the Torah enumerated only the animals that went into the calculations for the donation to the Kohanim, and these numbers were all by definition divisible by one thousand. The actual numbers of sheep, cattle, donkeys, and slave girls that were captured by the soldiers were unimportant and even irrelevant. All that was of interest was that which was donated to the service of G-d.

While the explanations of Rav Meir Simcha and the Lubavitcher Rebbe cannot be reconciled[4], both explanations lead to a similar conclusion: The most important detail of the war was that the people and the soldiers made donations to the service of G-d from the Midianite booty. Humans have a tendency to attribute success to our own prowess, especially military success. The Torah warns us [Devarim 8:18] “You must remember G-d, for it is He that gives you strength to wage war”. These donations cemented the awareness that the war against Midian, while fought by human soldiers, was won by the Alm-ghty G-d. When Torah describes the donations in minute detail, it is telling us, “This really belongs to G-d, and this really belongs to G-d, and this really belongs to G-d…”

This point is taken a step further by Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, known as the Malbim, who lived in the Ukraine in the nineteenth century. The Malbim writes “[The Torah] chose Elazar the Kohen as the recipient of the donations of the soldiers to remind them that it would not be through their sword that the land would be inherited, but with the power of G-d Alm-ghty as represented by the High Priest[5]”. Lest the soldiers forget, their donations were an acknowledgement that their victory was G-d’s victory.

With great respect, I disagree to a certain extent with the Malbim. The problem was not with the soldiers. As the popular adage goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. The soldiers on the front line are acutely aware that G-d is fighting with them. Indeed, the soldiers who returned from Midian donated from their own volition all of the jewelry that they captured to the service of G-d, saying [Bemidbar 31:50] “We have brought as an offering to G-d… to atone for our souls before G-d”. No, the problem is not with the soldiers – the problem is with us. Back at the home front, we don’t see the explosions. We don’t hear the bullets whizzing by. We don’t feel G-d’s Hand on our shoulders. And so we deify our military might, often leaving G-d without a supporting role. To counter this kind of thinking, the Torah dictated that the donation contributed by the people who did not fight should be ten times[6] the size of the donation of those who waged war. The man on the street was ten times as likely to forget that it was G-d that gave our soldiers “strength to wage war”.

As parents of a new officer in the IDF, my wife and I will be spending the next few years together with him in a foxhole. We now have a much closer relationship with G-d. We pray with all our might that He watch over and protect our child and that He grant the IDF victory.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] See the explanations of the Ramban and of the Or HaChaim HaKadosh ad loc. See also our lesson from Parashat Mattot – Masaei 5769.

[2] The answer is 0.0024 = 16 x 10-12, or about one in a trillion. Pretty slim odds.

[3] The next verse [Bemidbar 31:30] levies the same requirement on the people’s donation to the Levites.

[4] According the Rebbe, all of the numbers are divisible by one thousand while according to Rav Meir Simcha, it is highly likely that none of the numbers were divisible by one thousand.

[5] The Torah tells us [Bemidbar 31:6] “Moshe dispatched them on the campaign… with Pinchas son of Elazar the Kohen on the campaign, equipped with the sacred utensils and the trumpets for sounding the blasts.”

[6] One fiftieth given by the people is ten times one five hundredth given by the soldiers.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five 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 2001 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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