Saturday 30th July 2022 2nd Av 5782
PARASHIYOT MATOT/MASSAI by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig
Mattot: Numbers 30:2-32:42; Jeremiah 1:1-2:3; Matthew 23:1-39
Massei: Numbers 33:1–36:13; Jeremiah 2:4–28; 3:4; 4:1–2; John 20–21
We have a double portion this Shabbat which concludes the book of Numbers. The Shabbat when we conclude a book of Chumash (like this Shabbat) is called Shabbat Chazak, a Shabbat of strength. And, our practice is to stand afterward and chant ‘‘Chazak, chazak, V’nitzchazeik’.
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 (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, penned a book called “Not in the Name of God’ which deals with this topic)
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?” He had covid.
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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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 behaviour.
“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 neighbourhood) – 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, but 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 or unconditional 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.
Yeshua understood this principle. He proclaimed that the ultimate litmus test of our faith in Him is to unconditionally love one another; “By this will all men know that you are My disciples, by your love one for the other”.
1 John 2:7-9 - “if anyone claims to be in the light but hates his brother, he is still in the darkness.…”.
Scriptural truth often makes one rather uncomfortable but, it is sharper than a two-edged sword. Best that we confront these biblical truths now before we have to give the account!
Hebrews 4:11 – 13
Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following the same pattern of disobedience.
13Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight; everything is uncovered and exposed before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.…