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Mattos-Masei 5782: For Heaven’s Sake!

Masay (Numbers 33-36 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! No matter how often it happens, I am always shocked and saddened when religious people try to justify their negative actions by claiming it is in the name of religion and/or their religious beliefs.

Recently, several cases of child abuse have been brought forward where the parents withheld medical care from their child because of it was “against their religion.” Of course, we have to be very careful about hurriedly passing judgement on any religion based on the actions of just a few of its adherents. After all, I certainly would not want Judaism to be judged by the immoral and/or criminal actions of a few very well-known Jews.

Still, the cognitive dissonance of some people is simply breathtaking. I am reminded of a story that happened to a doctor friend of mine midway through the COVID-19 pandemic. My friend was an emergency room physician and a patient came in asking for help. After getting the man’s name and age, the conversation turned to the patient’s reason for coming to the ER, and it went something like this:

"I understand you’re here because aren’t feeling well.” “Yes,” replied the patient. The doctor continued, “Have you gotten the COVID vaccine yet?” “No!” replied the patient, “I don’t need any vaccine. God is my vaccine; I don’t need anything else!”

"I understand. Can you tell me why you’re here today?” “Well,” the patient began, “I have this persistent cough and I can’t seem to get rid of it. Can you give me something for it?”

The Torah itself gives us examples of people who thought they were doing something for the sake of heaven, but were sadly were mistaken. You cannot “do something for God” that goes explicitly against other principles of morality that God has established. A good example of this is the wife of Potiphar.

According to our sages, she had a prophetic revelation that some of her descendants were going to be tribes in the future Jewish nation. Knowing that Joseph was a Jew, she decided that she must seduce him in order to fulfill this vision of hers. Our sages say that for this immoral behavior she is referred to as a wild animal who attacked Joseph (see Genesis 27:23 and Rashi’s commentary there). In other words, a person can convince themselves that they are doing something “for the sake of heaven” when really their behavior is downright deplorable (i.e. cheating on her husband and making unwanted advances on Joseph). In this week’s Torah reading, which contains God’s final mission for Moses, we find the opposite behavior.

“God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Avenge the Jewish people from the Midianites, after which (you will die and) be gathered in to your people’” (Numbers 31:1-2).

For his last mission, God asked Moses to go to war with the nation Midianites and take revenge for what they did to the Jewish people. What did they do to the Jewish people?

Frustrated that he could not attack the Jewish people by cursing them, the wicked prophet Bilaam advised the Midianites that the best way to really hurt the Jewish people was to devise a plan to separate them from the Almighty. He explained that the God of the Jewish people abhors licentiousness and idol worship (both sins of unfaithfulness), and that was the key to causing a rift.

The ensuing actions of the Midianites caused the Jewish men to sin in multiple ways, which of course angered the Almighty (just as Bilaam had predicted) and brought a plague upon the Jewish nation, causing 24,000 deaths (see Numbers 25:1-9).

The sages laud Moses who, knowing that his death was imminent once this final mission was fulfilled, did not delay in sending the Jewish nation to war:

“Moses spoke to the people saying, ‘Arm men from yourselves for the army, that they will attack Midian and exact God’s vengeance against the Midianites’ […] Moses sent a thousand from each tribe for the army and (under the direction) of Pinchas the son of Elazar […]” (Numbers 31:3-6).

Seeing as this was Moses’ final mission on behalf of the Jewish people, it is fascinating to note that Moses himself did not lead the war effort, but rather sent his great-nephew Pinchas to lead the Jewish nation into battle. This seems especially odd considering God had specifically told Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. Why didn’t he go himself?

One might suggest that Moses did not go because he was getting up there in years and was perhaps getting old and feeble. However, this is untenable. First of all, just a few months prior Moses himself led them into battle and soundly defeated the two greatest world powers of the time: Sichon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan. Additionally, the Torah attests that even on the last day of his life Moses showed no signs whatsoever of aging (see Deuteronomy 34:7).

So why didn’t he go fight the Midianites as Hashem had commanded?

As we have previously discussed in this space, there is a fundamental principle of Judaism known as hakarat hatov – recognizing the good that someone has done for us and being appreciative. This was one of Adam’s great failures after he sinned in the Garden of Eden (when he blamed his sin on the Almighty for giving him Eve as a wife).

We also find examples of this earlier Moses’ life, such as when his brother Aaron had to perform some of the plagues in Egypt. When it came to striking the water in the Nile to create the plagues of blood and frogs, Aaron was the one who struck the Nile because the Nile had served to protect Moses when he was a baby (see Rashi Exodus 7:19). Similarly, Moses was not permitted to strike the ground for the third plague (lice) as the earth had “helped” him by hiding the corpse of the Egyptian officer whom Moses had struck down (see Rashi Exodus 8:12).

Here too, Moses had a conflict. Upon discovering that Moses had killed an Egyptian officer, Pharaoh had sentenced him to death. Miraculously, Moses escaped and fled Egypt and wound up taking refuge in the country of Midian. There he married the daughter of the Yitro – the High Priest of Midian – and she bore him two sons while he was living there. For these reasons Moses could not possibly be the one to lead the attack on the Midianites, so he sent Pinchas instead.

We see something quite fascinating here; even though God clearly told Moses to go and take vengeance from the Midianites, Moses understood that he himself could not go because that would display a deep sense of personal disloyalty.

The Torah is teaching us an incredible lesson: God doesn’t just issue a command and in doing so abrogate a core principle and tenet of Jewish philosophy. Moses understood that even though the Almighty wanted the Midianites to pay for what they had done to the Jewish people, it was inappropriate for him to lead an attack.

We see from the story of Potiphar’s wife that having the right intention isn’t enough. We cannot abrogate the Almighty’s other commandments to fulfill those that we would like to do, or to make social commentary (e.g. throwing rocks on Shabbat at cars traveling through a religious neighborhood) – it simply isn’t “for the sake of heaven.” People often use religion as a basis to attack those they don’t like on a personal level. This baseless hatred is terribly wrong, and it is the reason the second Holy Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people are still in exile after two thousand years.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel explains that the antidote to “baseless hatred” is “baseless love.” That is, we must begin by understanding that we are all connected to one another and we must do whatever we can to help each other. In this way we can merit the final redemption; the rebuilding of the holy city of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple within it. Amen.

Torah Portion of the Week

Mattos-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13

Mattos includes the laws of making and annulling vows, the surprise attack on Midian (the 1967 War wasn’t the Jewish people’s first surprise attack!) in retribution for the devastation the Midianites wreaked upon the Jewish people, the purification after the war of people and vessels, dedicating a portion of the spoils to the communal good (perhaps the first Federation campaign), the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad for their portion of land to be east of the Jordan river (yes, Trans-Jordan/Jordan is also part of the Biblical land of Israel). Moses objects to the request because he thinks the tribes will not take part in the conquering of the land of Israel; the tribes clarify that they will be the advance troops in the attack and thus receive permission.

Masei commands Moses to attack the Midianites in retribution for the licentious plot the Midianites perpetrated upon the Israelites. A new census is taken of the Jewish people revealing that there are 601,730 men available for army duty. God directs the division of the Land of Israel amongst the tribes. The Levites are tallied. The daughters of Tzelafchad come forward to petition Moses regarding their right of inheritance. Moses inquires of the Almighty, Who answers in their favor.

Candle Lighting Times

The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you know nothing about.
— Dr. Wayne Dyer

Dedicated with Deep Appreciation to

Norman & Nancy Lipoff




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