‘Superiority’ Parashat Mattot 5782

What goes around comes around. The ignominious Midianites, along with their Moabite allies, had sent their young women into the Israelite camp to seduce Jewish men and to turn them to idolatry. The Midianites were extremely successful: The Jews openly engage in idolatry, Moshe and Aaron lose control of the situation and in an ensuing plague, twenty four thousand people die. The plague ends only after Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas, strikes dead a Jewish tribal prince who is in the act of fornicating with a Midianite princess. And now it was payback time. G-d tells Moshe [Bemidbar 31:2] “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites[1], then you will die”. Moshe recruits soldiers to do battle against the Midianites [Bemidbar 31:3]: “Arm from among you men for the army, that they can be against Midian, and carry out the revenge of the Lord against Midian. A thousand for each tribe, a thousand for each tribe, from all the tribes of Israel you shall send into the army”. The Jewish People, still feeling the sting from their demise at the hands of the Midianites, run to the recruitment centre [Bemidbar 31:4]: “From the thousands of Israel, one thousand were handed over for each tribe, twelve thousand armed for battle. Moshe sent them, the thousand from each tribe, to the army, them along with Pinchas the son of Elazar the Priest.” The soldiers mount an assault against the Midianites and they are victorious.

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, is disturbed by the way in which Moshe recruits cadets for the war against Midian. In no other war were precisely one thousand soldiers recruited from each tribe. Considering that the Jewish People were fighting no less than five Midianite kings[2], the number of Jewish soldiers seemed extraordinarily low. They had no less than six hundred thousand men between the ages of twenty and sixty who were fit for military duty. Why give the Midianites outright numerical superiority? And why specifically choose one thousand troops and not some other number? The phrase “one thousand for each tribe (elef la’mateh)” is used no less than three times in Moshe’s marching orders and so it must have some kind of significance. Rashi, the most eminent of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, suggests that the Torah is telling us that every single tribe, including the Tribe of Levi, a tribe that was typically relieved of communal duties, sent one thousand soldiers into battle. But this is mathematically problematic: If the Tribe of Levi sent one thousand soldiers along with all of the other tribes, then seeing as the Tribe of Joseph was broken down into two sub-tribes – the Tribe of Ephraim and the Tribe of Menashe – the total number of soldiers would not have been twelve thousand, as scripture states, but, rather, thirteen thousand. Over the years, the commentators have proposed a number of ways out of this imbroglio: One asserts that the Tribe of Levi went into battle on their own volition while the other tribes were forced into battle, others suggest that Levi did not serve on the front lines, and others suggest that Joseph went as one tribe. With all due respect, none of these ways out are particularly satisfying.

In this essay, we will propose a variant of a solution proposed by the Or HaChaim Hakadosh and then we will propose some additions. Dr. Tziporah Lifshitz, who founded and manages the Ma’aleh Adumim Jewish Cultural Center, draws our attention to the tendency of our Sages in the Midrash to paint the twelve thousand soldiers that fought in the war against Midian as saints. For instance, one Midrash elaborates upon the Torah’s telling of soldiers “being handed over” – seemingly against their will – with the following words: “The Torah indicates that they were worthy and righteous men, who put their lives at risk for the matter… Rabbi Natan said: Others handed them over. ‘This worthy man will go out to war; this righteous man will go out to war.’” Another Midrash suggests that the saintly soldiers, knowing that Moshe would die immediately after the war, tried to use delay tactics in order to postpone the war, and with it, Moshe’s death. Why does the Midrash emphasize the righteousness of the soldiers and not their military prowess? Dr. Lifshitz suggests that the Midrash was spurred by the Torah’s emphasis of these men “handing over” their own lives, illustrating their “readiness to give up [their] lives in battle. This readiness stems from both a desire to fulfil G-d’s command and an awareness of the significance of the war.” I suggest that the righteousness of the Jewish warfighters was more than just laudable. Using the syntax of logicians, their righteousness was a necessary and sufficient condition to win the war.

The war against Midian was more than simply retribution. It was a reparation – a tikkun – for the catastrophic epidemic of sin that the Midianites caused. For the Jewish People to gain military superiority over the Midianites, they had to demonstrate that they held spiritual superiority over the Midianites. They had to show that they could rise above their physical desires and become a [Shemot 19:6] “Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation”. Each individual – and no-one else – truly knows the evil that lurks in his own heart. In order to go to battle against the Midianites, a soldier had to be saintly. If he was anything less than that, he had no business fighting in this war. Moshe could not choose the soldiers. Each man who felt he was spiritually ready “handed himself over” to the cause.

So far, our explanation has mirrored that of the Or HaChaim Hakadosh. To this we will add another layer or two. The war against Midian was different than all other wars in that not one Israelite soldier was killed[3]. Even in the war against Amalek, in which the enemy was miraculously defeated after Moshe raises his hands skywards, Jews still die. But not in the war against Midian. Why is this? I suggest that as the war was waged in order to prove that the Jewish People had overcome their evil inclination, the war is over when the Torah tells us [Bemidbar 31:7] “They took the field against Midian, as G-d had commanded Moshe”. As soon as they attacked the Midianites precisely as G-d had commanded and only because G-d had commanded them, they displayed spiritual superiority over the Midianites and victory could immediately be declared. The rest of the war was a technicality[4].

The second layer that we add to the edifice built by the Or HaChaim Hakadosh addresses the question why specifically one thousand soldiers were chosen from each tribe. He answers that one thousand was an arbitrary number, and that Moshe deliberately limited the number in each tribe to one thousand so as not to create a situation which would be embarrassing, such as when one tribe would field many more volunteers than another. Dr. Lifshitz notes that according to the esoteric Torah, the number one thousand, which is the product of the numbers ten and one hundred, indicates perfection, as does the number twelve[5]. Twelve thousand is the numerical value of spiritual superiority. And it just so happens that twelve thousand is exactly one half of the number of people that are killed in the plague caused by the Midianite women. The Midrash in Avot D’Rabbi Natan [30:2] states “The amount given for reward is greater than the amount given for punishment”. Twelve thousand repaired the sin of twenty-four thousand. As far as G-d is concerned, mathematics are meaningless. As long as the spirit is ready and willing, G-d will make sure that numbers work out.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, and Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah.

[1] The Jewish People were forbidden from exacting revenge upon the Moabites because of their indirect familial connection with our forefather Abraham. See Devarim [2:9].

[2] See Bemidbar [31:8]

[3] See Bemidbar [31:49].

[4] Rabbi Nachum Eliezer Rabinowitz, writing in “Ner L’netivati”, asks why did Moshe and Aharon greet the soldiers who had returned from battle against the Midianites (see Bemidbar [31:13]) but said nothing to Pinchas after he killed Zimri? Rabbi Rabinowitz answers that the soldiers did what they did because they were commanded by G-d, whereas Pinchas killed Zimri as an unauthorized act of vengeance.

[5] Ten, represented by the Ten Commandments that embody the Torah and the number of people required for a quorum, represents perfection. Twelve, the number of months in a year, represents completeness.

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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