Keep Your Focus

July 12, 2015

8 min read


Matot-Masay (Numbers 30-36 )

Two weeks ago, in parshas Balak, we learned about how the people of Midyan ensnared many of the Jews into sexual immorality and idol worship (avodah zarah), and that this caused the Jewish People to be punished by a catastrophic plague that claimed twenty four thousand lives. In this week's parsha, we read about the mitzvah to go to war and exact retribution from the people of Midyan (Bamidbar 31:1-12).

The Torah states that those that were chosen as the soldiers to wage this battle were anashim (Bamidbar 31:3). The literal translation of anashim is men, but Rashi brings to our attention that the word also has an implication of significance, the allusion being that men who were tzadikim (righteous) were specifically chosen to be the soldiers who would carry out this exacting of revenge from the people of Midyan.

When the soldiers return from their victory, the Torah states that they did not partake of any of the spoils of war until it was brought before Moshe and Elazar[1] to determine the proper distribution thereof (Bamidbar 31:11-12). Rashi points out that this is a great source of pride to the Jewish People, that even their soldiers of war are so virtuous and do not partake of that which they are not positive is rightfully theirs.

One cannot help but feel bewildered by this comment. Didn't you just tell me a few verses earlier that it was specifically the tzadikim of the Jewish People who were chosen to be the soldiers? Why, then, is it a wonderful source of pride that even the soldiers of war of the Jewish People are tzadikim !

The observation that we may make is that it is indeed a great source of pride that a tzadik maintains his righteousness even when he goes through the experience of being a soldier of war.

Battle, especially the ancient type, is a situation in which one must accentuate and emphasize his physical side. In battle, the blood is rushing at full steam, and one's complete focus is to eradicate the enemy. One must arouse the trait of achzariyus (cruelty) in order to perform properly in war.[2] Certainly, then, it is no small order for one to maintain even a basic modicum of morality under such conditions, let alone actual tzidkus.[3] Therefore, when the soldiers returned and showed that they had indeed preserved their lofty level of righteousness, it was indeed a great source of pride for the Jewish People.

The question is, though, how indeed did they accomplish such an amazing feat?

Perhaps the answer to this question is to be found in the answer to yet another question.

When Hashem commands Moshe to have the Jewish people exact retribution from the people of Midyan, He says, "Avenge the vengeance of the Children of Yisrael from the Midyanim (Bamidbar 31:1)." Yet, when Moshe transmits the mitzvah to the People, he says, "Prepare from amongst yourselves men for the army and they shall be upon Midyan to place the vengeance of Hashem upon Midyan (Bamidbar 31:3)."

It seems that Hashem is emphasizing that it is for the sake of the well-being and honor of the Jewish People that He is giving the mitzvah of exacting vengeance from the Midyanim, whereas Moshe seems to be emphasizing that it is for the sake of Kavod Shamayim that it is being done.

Why the apparent discrepancy?

In truth, there really is no actual discrepancy because, as Hashem's chosen nation, the Jewish People represent and bring into the world Kavod Shamayim, honor of God. As such, the honor of the Jewish People is inseparable with Kavod Shamayim; they are like two sides of the same coin.[4] Nevertheless, the shift in emphasis does require an explanation.

Passover is colloquially referred to Pesach. Yet, in the Torah, it is always called Chag Ha'Matzos,[5] the holiday of Matzah. Of course, it is completely accurate to say either one, but why the difference in emphasis?

Rav Yaakov Weinberg posed the above question and answered it as follows. Hashem always refers to it in His Torah as Chag Ha'Matzos because, from His perspective kavayachol , what is important to Him is the fact that the Jewish People trusted Him so much that they were willing to immediately follow Him into the desert such that they did not have time to let their bread rise. We, on the other hand, focus on what Hashem did for us, so we call it Pesach. The word Pesach, of course, is a reference to how Hashem passed over so to speak our houses during plague of the firstborn, thus keeping us alive.

This concept of different perspectives, explained Rav Weinberg, is a fundamental key in understanding many passages throughout Tanach.

And our current passage is a perfect illustration of this concept. From Hashem's perspective, what is important is the well-being and honor of His people; whereas from our perspective, what is important is the upholding and restoration of Kavod Shamayim.

Now we can venture to understand how it is that the soldiers maintained their state of righteousness even though they went through the experience of brutal, blood-boiling battle. They knew that they were not going to battle for the sake of killing. They knew that this battle has a lofty purpose and goal - to bring about a Kiddush Hashem and restore Kavod Shamayim; to exact vengeance upon those who caused Hashem's chosen People to stumble in such horrible aveiros and thus caused a devastating plague to fall upon them. By entering into the battle with this mindset and outlook, they thereby framed all of their actions within that context. Their actions, then, throughout the battle were an expression not of the urge and desire to win by killing and destroying, but an expression of the spiritual drive to restore Kavod Shamayim. This is how they were able to keep themselves afloat and prevent themselves from sinking into the coarse, physical brutality of war.

Throughout life, we undertake endeavors and projects that are inherently of a lofty purpose and goal - and that is, of course, why we involve ourselves in them. However, all too often we may find ourselves becoming so caught up in the specific details of the project that we may lose sight of the purpose of it all. We can forget the true objective of the undertaking and turn the various and sundry activities of the project into an end in of themselves. And when that happens, it is possible to become stale and automaton-like in the manner that we carry out our tasks because we have lost, to a great degree, our sense of purpose and meaning in it. It is even possible to become corrupt, chas v'Shalom, in the way we go about things because we may have inadvertently, psychologically framed our actions within the wrong context. We may find ourselves functioning with inappropriate motivations.

In order to prevent this from occurring, it is necessary that we fully clarify for ourselves the overarching purpose of the undertaking before we embark on it.[6] This provides us with the correct psychological framing for all our actions that will follow. Even after commencement of the project, it may be necessary to "take a step back" from time to time in order to refresh and revitalize that awareness within ourselves so that we succeed in maintaining it throughout the duration of all the myriad stages and types of efforts involved. This may require a short break from the project in order to catch our breath and allow our minds and hearts to reenergize.[7]

When we take the necessary steps to properly frame our actions both before and during our life's various undertakings we remember who we are, what we stand for, and what our true goals are. This greatly assists us to keep our moral compass pointing in the right direction and our actions clean of impurities. And, it also helps us to maintain our deep sense of purpose and meaning in all that we do


1. Son and successor to Aharon Ha'Kohein.

2. See Rashi on parshas Shoftim 20:3.

3. See Rashi on parshas Ki Seitzei 21:11.

4. See Rashi on parshas Beshalach 15:7.

5. Putting this into writing can go a long way in achieving this.

6. For more about this concept, see the D'var Torah on parshas Vayakheil.

7. For more about this concept, see the D'var Torah on parshas Vayakheil.

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