By a show of hands, how many of you read the dvar torah on parshat Matot that I wrote for the Library Minyan website 3 years ago? I ask only so that I don’t bore you by repeating what you’v e already read. In any case,
This week’s parsha marks the culmination, in a shocking manner, of a story that has been building for several weeks. Not only does the final part of the story shock and disturb us, but the story has a surprise ending, not unlike an Agatha Christie mystery in which the true mastermind of the plot is revealed at the very end. First, let’s review.
Two weeks ago, in Balak, right after the story of how Balak, the Moabite king had hired the non-Jewish prophet Bilam to curse the Jews, but instead he blessed them, we find the story of what happened at Shittim. Moabite women are seducing Israelite men and getting them to worship Baal, their pagan god. God Chapter 25, p. 907. God is furious and instantly orders Moshe to impale the ringleaders, and Moshe orders the leaders to kill the men who have attached themselves to BaalPeor. One Israelite man, whom we later learn is a prince, brings a Midianite woman with him to the Ohel Moed. The Torah is not explicit, but the rabbis tell us that they were having sex when Pinchas grabs a spear and stabs the two of them through their bodies, killing them. At this moment the plague ends.
Last week, in Pinchas, we learn that God is so appreciative of Pinchas’ act that he offers him his covenant of peace, page 918-919 verse 12. We learn the name of the Israelite prince Zimri ben Salu, a prince of the Shimonite tribe, and the woman’s name is Cozbi bat Tzur, a princess of Midian. God then orders Moshe to destroy the Midianites. The subject is dropped until this week’s parsha, Matot.
In Matot, beginning with chapter 31 at the bottom of p. 943 God tells Moshe to avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, after which he will die. It is unclear, at least to me, whether this is part of the same command that God gave to Moshe back in Pinchas, or whether that assignment somehow wasn’t carried out and it is being ordered again. In any event, he Torah is much more specific this time, narrating what Moshe did in response to this command. We are told in verse 7 on p. 944 that just as God had commanded, they killed all of the males of Midian. We learn in verse 8 that they killed the 5 kings of Midian. We learn in verse 9 that they took the women and children of the murdered Midianite men back to the camp as captives, destroyed the Midianites’ towns and took the spoils, and the women and children back to the camp. Now comes the shocking and disturbing part. Moshe is furious that they allowed the women to live. He orders them to murder all of the male children and all the women who are not virgins.
Here also we learn the amazing Agatha Christie-like surprise. It turns out that back in Parshat Balak it didn’t just happen that Moabite and Midianite women began to seduce Israelite men and get them to worship BaalPeor. This crime had a brilliant mastermind—none other than Bilam. It turns out that after Bilam is incapable of cursing the Jews, despite his desire to, and the huge reward Balak has offered him, Bilam comes up with Plan B. In verse 16, at the bottom of p. 945, that the Midianite women seduced the Israelite men at the bidding of Bilam. If we go back to the end of parshat Balak, at p. 907, we are told that after Bilam blesses the Jews he goes back to his place, and Balak goes back to his place. In the very next verse we learn that the Midianite women are seducing the Israelite men, and only in this week’s parsha do we learn that in fact Bilam was the mastermind. When prophecy fails, try sex.
These passages present several questions, among them these: Why is Bilam’s central role in the tragedy of Baal Peor hidden until this week’s parsha? Why on page 907 , chapter 25 verse 1, are we told that the daughters of Moav were seducing the Israelite men, when a few verses later we are told that an Israelite man has brought a Midianite woman into the camp, whom we learn is Cozbi, the daughter of a tribal chief of Midian? If the Moabite women were the instigators, why does God order the revenge attack on the Midianites and not the Moabites? And finally, why is Moshe furious that the women were not killed, and why does he order their death?
There are no clear answers, but I offer these thoughts. The easy way to explain the mixing of the Moabites and Midianites is that there were two stories handed down over the generations and the compilers of the Bible integrated the two stories. If we try to deal with the text just as it is we have a greater challenge. One thought is that the most famous Moabite woman, who would be born many years later, was Ruth. At the end of the Book of Ruth we learn that she is the progenitor of Kind David, and ultimately of the Messiah. Perhaps in her honor, and to assure her birth generations later, the women of Moav are spared, despite their sins. The Midianite women had no such future tzadeket who could save them. Perhaps another difference is that there is no reference to the Moabite women seducing leaders of the Israelites. It is only the Midiantie woman Cozbi who seduces Zimri, a prince of Shimon. Perhaps it was the Midianites who saw how easy it was for the Moabite women, using sex as the lure, to get the Israelite men to worship their gods, but only a leading woman of Midian decided to attack the political infrastructure of the Israelite nation, seducing not just any average Israelite but a prince. This is the kind of difference which exists between murder of an average citizen and the assassination of the president or prime minister: the same physical act, but one that carries so much more symbolic effect and can have such a catastrophic effect on the entire nation.
Our next question was why Bilam’s identity as the mastermind of this plot is hidden until our parsha. At the very bottom of p. 945 the Etz Chaim authors offer this thought: had Bilam been identified initially, the people would have had an excuse—he led us to do these terrible things. By naming him only later, this excuse is not available because the people don’t know of his role. The implication here is that the people who lived through the incident, like the reader, didn’t know until later of Bilam’s role.
The final, and most difficult question, is the wholesale slaughter of the Midianite women. Clearly not all of them had slept with and seduced Jewish men to worship Baal Peor—yet all of them who were not virgins—meaning all of them who might possibly have slept with Jewish men—were executed. Was this fair to the women who had not seduced Jewish men? Was this execution necessary to preserve the Jewish people?
The answer is and must be yes.
The Midianite women are in many ways like Amalek, whom we are ordered to utterly destroy. Just as Amalek may be more of a symbol of evil than an actual nation, so too the story of the Midianite women can be taken as a powerful fable of lust and betrayal. Amalek is a people who are thoroughly evil—they have no good side. They are a symbol of ultimate evil, evil which cannot be reversed and rehabilitated, and which therefore must be destroyed. Perhaps there really was at one time a nation called Amalek, but the Torah’s use of Amalek can be understood only as metaphor for the destruction of evil. Amalek must be totally wiped out, meaning that we must be diligent and always vigilant to destroy the evil both inside and outside of us. We cannot tolerate just a little evil, just as an alcoholic cannot tolerate just a small drink.
The Midianite women represent a similar symbol. They use their sexual attractiveness to turn the Israelite men away from God and toward the worship of Baal Peor. Like Amalek, they are the ultimate representation of using sex in the wrong way, taking what could be an act of holiness and profaning it to an act of idolatry. There is no doubt that Judaism celebrates sex as a good and important part of life; indeed the marriage ceremony is called kiddushin, an act of ultimate holiness. But when this potentially act is perverted and changed to be an agent of evil, it must be thoroughly condemned. The Midianite women, who are used in the Torah as a symbol of this perversion, must be killed, just as Amalek must be wiped out. We are commanded to remember Amalek, which is perhaps another way to say that we need to remember each day that there is a potential Amalekite inside each of us, and our mission is to identify that part of us and wipe it out. So too, whether we happen to be male or female, there is a "Midianite woman" inside us, something inside us that wishes to use our sexuality, and the sexual urges of others, not for healthy and even holy reasons, such as having children, or bringing joy or pleasure to those we love, but for insidious and perverse reasons, such as to bring pain to someone or to cause that person to turn away from his true beliefs and act in a way that he or she never intended or wanted to. This symbolic Midianite woman within us must also be destroyed.
Since I mentioned Ruth before, let me close by recounting the story of her ancestor, Tamar. This story is recounted in chapter 38 of Bereshit. Tamar is the daughter in law of Judah. When her husband Er dies, Judah orders his son Onan to marry her and have a child to uphold Er’s family. Onan doesn’t want to father a son who will be deemed his late brother’s child, and he does not carry out his father’s wishes. Like the symbolic Midianite woman, Onan uses sex to abuse Tamar. God punishes Onan and takes his life. Then Judah says to Tamar that she must remain a widow and wait for Shelah, Judah’s youngest son to grow up. But Judah does not keep this promise, and when Shelah is grown, Tamar is not given to him. Tamar then disguises herself as a prostitute and has sex with Judah himself, who does not recognize her. She becomes pregnant and Judah at first orders her death. But when she proves to him that in fact he was the one who slept with her he immediately realizes that he had sinned by not giving her to Shelah. The Torah recognizes Tamar’s use of sex as entirely appropriate and holy. We know this because the name of the child born of her union with Judah is Peretz, and as we learn in the Book of Ruth, Peretz is the ancestor of David, and of the Messiah.
The Torah’s message about sex is pretty clear: use it for perverse and improper reasons, take advantage of another person’s sexual desire to betray him or turn him away from his beliefs and from the person he really is, and you are a Midianite woman, who must be wiped out. Use sex for its proper and holy purposes, and you can bring about the Messiah.