I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and is not an enemy, of ourselves personally and of the People Israel.
Dvar torah on parashat Matot, Temple Micah 7/30/16
These remarks focus on the story of vengeance, Numbers 30:1ff. This is an odd and troubling story in many ways. I chose to study it, in part because I worry about the consequences of failing to examine the uglier parts of our tradition, and in part because its very oddness makes it interesting.
A few odd things
One odd thing is that we are told Pinchas was the priest of the campaign, but we are not told who the military leader was.
Another odd thing is how the otherwise terse story stops to tell us that Pinchas brought the “holy utensils” — which many commentators believe means the Ark — and the shofar. This makes the whole thing sound terrifyingly like something out of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (Paramount 1981) or any of our contemporary wars that make use of religious iconography to wreak havoc on perceived enemies.
It seems to me — although I didn’t find commentary saying this, exactly — that the religious details, the priest, the holy utensils, and the shofar, hint at the spiritual aspect of the story. However distasteful and scary most of us find this today, the idea that a war should be fought to kill some people in order to preserve other people’s spiritual health, that was a part of biblical storytelling.
Midianites and Moabites, Balak and Pinchas
The Torah and many commentaries are clear that this whole issue with the Midianites is a war on people who tempted the Israelites into idolatrous behavior. We might think (and many commentaries remark) that the problem would be with the Moabites because it was the Moabites with whom Israel engaged in harlotry and idolatry in what is called here “the matter of Baal Peor.”
Back at the close of parashat Balak, we are told that Israel became “attached to Baal Peor and the wrath of God flared up against them” (citation). Moses and the judges had just ordered the Israelites to turn on one another and kill men attached to Baal Peor when the Israelite male, Zimri, and the Midianite female, Cozbi, perform what is generally understood to be public sex acts at the Tent of Meeting. Then Pinchas runs them through with a spear, stopping a plague we had not been told was happening. Just the one Midianite, Cozbi, is mentioned there. But both nations collaborated in hiring Balaam to curse Israel. So perhaps they were collaborating in the incidents involving Baal Peor, too. However it came to be, God told Moses back in chapter 25, at the start of parashat Pinchas, to harass [tsaror] the Midianites and kill them because they had attached [tsorerim] Israel “through the conspiracy against you [the Israelites] in the matter of Peor.”
Hasidic commentary says this harassing is a sort of eternal command, because the temptation to the Israelites will persist. The idea is that once they have tasted debauchery, it will be impossible to keep desire from arising again. So Israel must now be eternally harassing those who harassed them with temptation.
If the Israelites could have been warned some other way to be eternally vigilant to stop evil urges in themselves, we might have an easier time with the lesson. But that is not what Or HaChaim teaches, and that is not how the Torah text unfolds. Instead….
God tells Moses to harass the Midianites in chapter 25. And then we have a census and some legal material, a list of offerings, and a long treatise on vows. After all that, here in chapter 31, God tells Moses to take vengeance — now the verb is different, nekom –against the Midianites.
This is another odd bit and one of my favorites.
Another odd thing
Back when the whole mess started, we have a break between portions introduced right at the height of the Baal Peor matter. Israel’s idolatry and the incident of Zimri & Cozbi ends parashat Balak. Pinchas is rewarded for his action that stops Cozbi & Zimri in the next portion. And that’s where we see the command to harass Midian, at the start of parshat Pinchas.
The portion break suggests that the story was just too far out of control and the Rabbis wanted to cool things off….This is a very famous break, often discussed in the commentary. For more, see “Pinchas and the scary friend….But that’s a later, conscious choice of how we are to read and learn this text. The Torah itself inserts the five-chapter break between the precipitating events and God’s call for harassment, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this episode of vengeance.
Moreover, we have so many odd things in both places. Pinchas acts to stop a plague that is not mentioned before it stops. Moses and God speak of a conspiracy against the Israelites involving sexual misconduct. But the only conspiracy we’re told about in the text is the one to hire Balaam to curse the people. Balaam is blamed (in commentary and in the text here) for whatever sexual acts and idolatry are happening, even though the last we heard of him, he went home after blessing Israel with words we still celebrate every morning in the prayers. (See, e.g., “Balak prayer links”.)
I think the missing bits and the halting way the story is told suggest a struggle — with facts, perhaps, or with feelings and ideologies that lead to death and disaster. If we take nothing else away from this, I believe the Torah wants to ensure that conspiracy and war and people turning on one another is not read smoothly or accepted easily.
Avivah Zornberg, the brilliant and very Freudian teacher of Torah, believes the Torah itself has an unconscious that is suppressing trauma. (See The Murmuring Deep, citation coming). I’m not sure I buy her whole theory, but I do think we should listen to the pauses and the stuttering and the weird missing bits as closely as we listen to the story tht reads more easily… maybe more closely.
And meanwhile Moses, who argued with God so many times before has nothing to say in the text in support of the Midianites who protected and nurtured him in his youth. Nothing to say about his extended family and the legacy of Jethro, his father-in-law, who contributed so much to his own learning and helped Israel set up a judicial system.
It’s not much of a surprise that we don’t hear from Zipporah, as we rarely hear from women, even ones who face down God to save their husbands from death (see the “night incident” at the inn in early Exodus; citation coming). But Moses has nothing to say on her behalf?
We’re not the first generation to notice the oddness of this incident and Moses’s close connection to Midianites. Early commentary says that is why, although God tells Moses to exact vengeance, Moses sends others and stays back himself. Of course, this says nothing about the fact that he lets it happen, anyway, even appears to orchestrate it; it also discounts the fact that Moses is quite aged here and perhaps unable to command in battle.
But the interesting point to note, I think, is that Numbers Rabbah acknowledged the relationship between Moses and Midian, and tries to address how hard it all was and how thoroughly entangled were all the players here.
The contemporary biblical literary teacher Robert Alter says this about Baal Peor in chapter 25:
The Israelite attitude toward its neighbors appears to have oscillated over time and within different ideological groups between xenophobia, a fear of being drawn off its own spiritual path by its neighbors, and an openness to alliance and interchange with surrounding peoples.
–Alter’s Torah commentary
In reference to this passage in chapter 31, he says:
Either two conflicting traditions are present in these texts, or, if we try to conceive this as a continuous story, Moses, after the Baal Peor episode reacts with particular fury against the Midianiate women (not to speak of all the males) because he himself is married to one of them and feels impelled to demonstrate his unswerving dedication to protecting Israel from alien seduction. But it must be conceded that the earlier picture of the Midianite priest Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, as a virtual monotheist and a benign councilor to Israel does not accord with the image in these chapters of the Midianite women enticing the Israelits to pagan excesses.
One more possibility comes to mind….
House of Cards theory of bible analysis
Maybe there was a conspiracy involving Balaam and the Midianite kings but orchestrated by some other entity for reasons of their own, some kind of House-of-Cards-type plot to discredit the Midianites and turn Israel against them — or to make us believe Midian and Israel were enemies and would always be. Maybe the plot was so successful that Moses turned against his own earlier supporters because of it, so successful that the narrator can make us believe the story really moves from “go kill more people to undo you own spiritual troubles” to instructions for how to become ritually clean after carrying out more vengeance. But whichever Frank Underwood was behind the plot is no longer available — to look us straight in the eye, breaking the Torah’s fourth wall, so to speak — and confess what’s really going on and why, or to at least offer another version of the truth.
This is not too different from Zornberg’s unconscious theory. Because they both boil down to the fact that the Torah itself cannot say, maybe no longer knows, what caused the People to lose their spiritual way and then turn on neighbors and allies in an attempt to cope, make some sense of it. But the Torah is still able to tell us in its stuttering way, full of missing bits and confusion, that the tale is maybe not as straightforward as it might sometimes be portrayed, that vengeance is not a simple matter with a clear beginning and end, that it’s not something that ends well…or even ends:
In the middle of his rant to the leaders for not killing enough, Moses is somehow back to a lecture on ritual purity after touching the dead. And we are not told at this point if his ranting instructions were carried out (and we know from later stories in Tanakh that there are plenty of Midianites still in the land).
A heavy tongue returns
It occurred to me late in preparing these remarks that perhaps the rambling and stuttering of this story is related to what Shelley Grossman described here about Moses a few weeks ago: his aging and use of an old playbook and how he no longer has his siblings at his side. Remember, too, that Moses tried to refuse the Exodus mission, back at the Burning Bush, by telling God he was “heavy-mouthed” and “heavy-tongued” (Alter’s words). At the time, God told Moses not to worry because Aaron could speak. But now, Aaron and Miriam are gone and we have, instead, Pinchas — Aaron’s grandson whom we first meet when he is in the middle of a violent act, committing a killing that we are later told is part of a covenant of peace.
So maybe what we witness here is a story that is moving forward under emerging leadership but related by a man who has reverted to heavy-tongue, reporting to us that his own demise will follow on the heels of vengeance on people he once knew as family and fellow monotheists. Maybe it’s a kind of last gift to Moses — and to us — that the old, heavy-mouthed stuttering voice comes through to warn us that no such tale can be told without stumbling and missing bits.
Max David Ticktin (1922 – 2016)
There are many on-line obituaries and memorials to Max. My favorite is this one by Rabbi Arthur Waskow. And in the way of such things, I was carrying the Torah through the Micah congregation just a few days after Max’s funeral and, even though Max did not attend services at Micah would not have been there to touch me with his tzitzit, I found myself equal parts profoundly sad at the knowledge that we would all be missing his touch and deeply grateful for the myriad ways he had already touched so many of us.
The Torah Portion
The Torah portion Matot is comprised of Numbers 30:2 – 32:42. Temple Micah is following the schedule of readings used in Israel and, therefore, one week ahead of many congregations in the diaspora at this point in the calendar.