16 And the L-RD spoke unto Moses, saying: 17 ‘Harass the Midianites, and smite them; 18 for they harass you, by their wiles wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the prince of Midian, their sister, who was slain on the day of the plague in the matter of Peor.’
In our parsha, we have a most curious commandment given to the Israelites, the mitzvah to harass and smite the Midianites. Unlike similar commandments, such as the mitzvah to destroy Amalek, and to annihilate the seven Canaanite nations upon entry to the land of Israel, the commandment to smite the Midianites is accompanied by a directive to “harass” (צרור) them as well. Rashi (loc. cit.) comments that this means that the people of Israel were enjoined by G-d to actually cultivate an orientation of hatred towards them, to regard the Midianites as enemies. The reason for this commandment is, “for they harass you”, i.e. they hate you, they regard you as an enemy (Bamidbar 25:18). There are two points that are important to note here; first, that the actual cue to go to war against Midian was not given until later, in Parshat Matot (Bamidbar 31:2; Ohr HaChayim on our verse), so the emphasis here really is on the commandment to despise. Second, that the verb צוררים (“they are harassers”) is stated in present tense, indicating that the Midianites’ hatred for the Israelites was ongoing, even after their campaign against them.
In the previous parsha, we read about the second line offensive waged by the Midianites and Moabites against the Israelites, namely, the prostitution of their women amongst the Israelites in order to entice the Israelites to serve the idol Ba’al Pe’or, which in turn invoked Divine fury and unleashed a plague upon the Israelites. Unable to curse them, Bilaam engineered a “final solution” of sorts for his patrons, one that actually resulted in the death of 24,000 people. What exactly was his/their strategy, what was the nature of the Midianites’ hatred, and why are these nations singled out for our hatred?
The Slonimer Rebbe zt”l in his monumental work Netivot Shalom, focuses us on the fact that the end goal of the enemies’ harlotry was the Israelites’ worship of the idol, and that, in order to achieve this goal, they employed prurience as their weapon. Idol worship is the single worst crime in the Torah, for Jews and Gentiles alike; it is estimated as equal to all of the commandments in the Torah, and it represents the opposite of faith in G-d. According to the Slonimer Rebbe, the Midianites effectively destroyed the Israelites’ faith by striking at the gate of faith in G-d. This “gate” is the gate of holiness or kedusha.
As with everything else in Torah, holiness is not a loose term, but a technical one. How does the Torah define holiness? The verse states, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Vayikra 19:2) Rashi (loc. cit.) states that the verse means, “be separated from illicit sexual relationships and transgression, for any place where there is a fence around illicit relationships, holiness is to be found.” Thus, the concept of kedusha or holiness is intrinsically linked to purity and morality in the realm of sexuality. The implication is that one’s faith in G-d is bolstered by his or her commitment to a life of sanctity, and is eroded by the weakening of this commitment, eroded even to the point of being willing to go against G-d in the ultimate manner, through the worship of idols.
It is clear from the strategy of the Midianites that their aim was to place a divide between the Israelites and G-d, and thereby render them vulnerable once again. Prior to their attack, the Israelites were literally invulnerable in every instance where their faith was firm in G-d. Vulnerability meant having to separate the Jews from G-d. The Slonimer Rebbe concludes that this is why we are commanded, not just to avenge what the Midianites did, but to hate them as well. Because life in this world without G-d, Who is the Source of all meaning, is an unredeemed life, and of course, leads to the loss of the life of the World to Come. Other nations, such as the Egyptians or the Edomites subjugated us physically, or enslaved us. But Midian created a context that was destructive to the soul of Israel.
One might ask, “but who is responsible for committing the sin? Shouldn’t that party suffer one hundred per cent of the repercussions? Even the Sages state, “there is no concept of agency for sin” (TB Kiddushin 42b), i.e. Person A does not incur liability for telling Person B to worship idols, if Person B actually does so.
Still, the answer is yes and no. Negative influences are a stimulus, though not the cause, of an individual’s transgression. That is why a plague broke out amongst the Israelites; we cannot plead insanity where morality is demanded of us. At the same time, the architects of culture create the narrow confines within which an individual can make choices about how he or she will live life. The human community is one where all of its members are hopelessly interconnected. Therefore, societies can also be judged for the spiritual conditions they offer the individual for living a good life. Does the society we live in promote or defeat spiritual growth? Have we correctly identified our “enemies”? What is the price we pay for “making peace” with them?
And what does this mean practically for us? How can we understand the importance of closeness to G-d and the problem of being separated from Him?
King David says, “as for me, closeness to G-d is good” (Tehillim 73:28). We understand this to mean that closeness to G-d is THE good. The Ramchal, in Derech Hashem, states clearly that achieving this closeness is the purpose of man. We do this by emulating the attributes of G-d, thereby implementing His vision for the world in concrete terms. Presumably, when the segment of humanity that does this reaches a critical mass, the positive impact they have on existence is palpable.
But there are many forces in the world that threaten to come between man and his Creator. Imagine what our reaction would be if someone attempted to separate us from our loved ones, from our hard-earned money, from our health, or from our most desired personal goals? We would likely experience despair or fury. Yet, all of these blessings come to us via our relationship with G-d.
May we rediscover that relationship and cultivate it, and strengthen ourselves to do battle against the elements which threaten to sever it. And in so doing, may we encounter a redeemed life, walking side by side with G-d.
Good Shabbos! Shabbat Shalom!
By Rabbi Tani Burton
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