Shabbat Parshat Matot
The time has come to exact retribution from Midian. They had sent their women to tempt the Israelites to sin, and Hashem punished Israel with a devastating plague (see Chapter 25).
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, “Avenge the Children of Israel from the Midianites; afterwards, you shall be gathered to your people” (Bamidbar 31:1-2).
Because his death seems to be dependent upon this revenge, Moshe could have delayed and postponed his death indefinitely. Nevertheless he fulfills Hashem’s Will immediately, despite the consequences.
Each tribe sends one thousand soldiers. They kill the men of Midian, including their five kings, as well as Bil’am (whose idea it was to entice Israel to sin). They capture the women and children and take booty of every kind, before burning the cities.
When the troops return, they present their loot. And Moshe, Elazar the Kohen and all the princes of the community went out to meet them, outside the camp. And Moshe was furious (VAYIKTZOF MOSHE) with the commanders of the army, the officers of the thousands and the officers of the hundreds, who came from the combat. And Moshe said to them, “Did you spare every female?! Behold, they caused the Children of Israel, by the word of Bil’am, to commit a betrayal against Hashem in the matter of Pe’or, such that the plague was in the community of Hashem” (vs 13-16).
Therefore, says Moshe, they must kill all the male children, as well as the females who have cohabited with men. Furthermore, Moshe teaches the soldiers to observe the laws of tum’ah (ritual impurity contracted by contact with the dead): They must remain outside the camp for seven days, during which they will undergo the process of purification with the waters of the red heifer.
Utensils will have to be purified, since they too have come in contact with the dead (see earlier, Chapter 19).
But, in addition to being tamei, the utensils are unkosher: the Midianites used them for their food, with the result that they have absorbed the flavor (ta’am) of forbidden food. Before the Israelites can use them for cooking or eating, the utensils must be thoroughly cleansed of this forbidden ta’am (see Nazir 37b).
Ta’am is forbidden by the Torah only if was absorbed within twenty-four hours (ben yomo), since the ta’am has not spoiled (Avodah Zara 75b). Past that time, the utensils must be purged by Rabbinic decree. Torah Temimah (R. Baruch ben Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein, 1860-1942) therefore suggests that, even during the seven days of the warriors’ purification, the captives themselves must have used the utensils, for otherwise there would have been no Torah prohibition. The rules of purging utensils (hag’alat keilim) are based on the principle, “as it absorbed, so will it purge”: Vessels that cooked hot liquid are cleansed by being immersed in hot water; those that used direct exposure to fire are cleansed by heating until white-hot; and those that used only cold foods are washed in cold water.
At this point, Moshe should have taught the returning warriors the details of hag’alat keilim. Instead, the lesson is transmitted by another: And Elazar the Kohen said to the men of the army who came to the war. “This is the statute of the Torah which Hashem has commanded Moshe …” (v.21).
Rashi, based on Sifri (157), says Moshe did not teach about hag’alat keilim because he forgot the laws: “Since Moshe came to anger he came to error, since the laws of purging vessels were lost to him.”
Such is the destructive power of anger – even justified anger – that even Moshe Rabbeinu can lose his wisdom because of it! Anyone who becomes angry, if he is a sage his wisdom departs from him, and if he is a prophet his prophecy departs from him (Pesachim 66b; cf. Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Chapter 1).
In Chayei Musar (vol. I, pg. 173) an important insight into anger is cited in the name of the “Alter” of Novhardok, R. Yosef Yozel Horowitz (1847-1919): When the army returned, and it was discovered that they had not acted properly, Moshe could have been happy that he would not die; after all, the righteous look forward to every day as an opportunity to fulfill Hashem’s Will. Nevertheless, Moshe exhorted them to finish their task. Therefore, Moshe’s anger was not only justified; it was free of any trace of personal benefit, and he acted only for the sake of Heaven.
Yet, even the purest anger causes a lapse of wisdom.
Imagine then how harmful our anger can be, which is so often fueled by self- interest!
Rashi gives other examples where Moshe’s anger caused him to forget a halacha: So do you find on the eighth day of the (Mishkan) dedication, as it says, And Moshe was furious (VAYIKTZOF) with Elazar and Itamar (Vayikra 10:17); he came to anger, so he came to error [in forgetting the law that an onen, one who has just suffered the loss of a close relative, does not eat sacrifices]. And so with Hear now, you rebels! … And he struck the rock [to provide water for the people] (Bamidbar 20:11): by means of the anger he erred. Another midrash (Vayikra Rabba 13:1) puts it differently:
R. Huna said: In three places Moshe became angry and the law was lost to him. And these are they: Shabbat, and metal vessels, and onen.
“Shabbat” refers to the incident when the Israelites were instructed not to leave manna until morning, yet some did. Moshe was so angry that he forgot to teach them that a double portion would be provided for Shabbat, and that they should make all their preparations on Friday (Shemot 16:1-5, 14-27).
Rabbis, like their role-model Moshe Rabbeinu, are presented with questions concerning a wide variety of subjects — Torah and Rabbinic laws, financial (“water from the rock”) and ritual (Shabbat, kashrut and mourning). Moshe’s experiences with his people are a sobering lesson to shun anger in such dealings. In chapter 31 of our parsha, there seems to be a contradiction between what God commanded the Jewish people to do and the instructions that Moshe actually gave them. In 31:2 God commands Moshe: “Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites...” But in 31:3 Moshe says to Bnei Israel: “Let men be picked from among you for a campaign and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the vengeance of God upon Midian.” Is the revenge for Israel or for God? Rashi explains that these two objectives are two sides of the same coin, stating: “Whoever attacks Israel is as though he attacks the Holy One, blessed be He.” This could be interpreted as meaning that when Midian enticed Israel to sin, they caused a desecration of God’s name. Nevertheless, the thrust of the revenge upon Midian appears to imply that we are dealing here with more than just two sides of the same coin. While all mitzvot are the fulfillment of God’s command, some are spiritually uplifting, while others – though right and just – contain elements that are spiritually difficult or perhaps even dangerous. On the joyous occasion of a Brit Milah we specifically do not incorporate the introductory words to birkat ha-mazon at a wedding/ sheva brachot, “ she-ha-simcha bi-me’ono – Whose abode is celebration,” in recognition of the fact that the child who has just entered Avraham’s covenant is at the same time in pain. Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nasi was punished for not relating to the pain of an animal which was being sacrificed ( Baba Metzia 85a). We do not recite the complete Hallel on Pesach, because at the moment of our joy and redemption the Egyptians were drowning.
God told Moshe that the Midianites deserved punishment and that the children of Israel had His blessing to exact that punishment. Moshe felt that this revenge should be tempered with the idea that the revenge was intended to sanctify God’s name.
What an important message for out times. In our present situation of great trouble and difficulty, when the very physical and spiritual future of our beloved Eretz Israel is in danger, let us keep in mind that as important as our physical survival may be, our spiritual existence is no less threatened. May God grant that in both our struggles, the “war of Israel” and the “war of God,” we will emerge victorious and achieve physical and spiritual peace in our beloved Eretz Israel.
Rabbi Binyamin Walfish