Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 27 July 2019 / 24 Tammuz 5779

Parshat Matot

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Dignity Restored

After the tragic sin of the people with the licentious daughters of Midian, Moshe is given his last instruction: wage war with Midian. The language of the command is instructive: Accomplish the vengeance [n’kom nikmat]of the Children of Israel from the Midianites. As the transmitter of G-d’s Torah, which is based on chastity and loyalty to G-d, Moshe’s final task is to strike a blow against the Midianites in order to safeguard these two pillars. By doing so he will protect the people from further threats of idolatry and licentiousness.

The word for avenge — nakam — is related phonetically to the word kum, stand. Nekamah raises up justice which has been trampled underfoot or it raises up a person who has been humbled to the ground. The avenger identifies with the object that he seeks to raise up. This explains the prepositional form used with this verb: “accomplish the vengeance of the Children of Israel from the Midianites.”If the purpose of nekamah was to push down the enemy and take revenge upon him, the construction would be, “accomplish the vengeance…on the Midianites.”Rather, the purpose is to raise Israel up from the Midianites. When they are raised above this menacing enemy, Israel is then freed from the power of Midian’s wiles. Free to regain their spiritual identity and attain moral liberation from the forces of corrosive neighbors.

The war itself bears this out. Moshe commanded the nation, the same “am” that was described as sinning. It is not the leaders that must raise the people, but the people that must raise themselves. The war is not waged against Moav, who sought to weaken Israel physically, but rather against Midian, who nearly effected a complete spiritual destruction. It was necessary for the people themselves, who succumbed to Midian’s temptations, to restore their moral and spiritual integrity.

We have many modern day Moavs, and even more modern day Midians. Iran, Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah — they all crave our physical destruction. Yet, we learn that it is not Moav but Midian which poses the greater threat; alluring materialism, intoxicating technology, degradation of basic morality — it is against these spiritual enemies which we are to fight, and thereby raise ourselves above their influence.

  • Sources: Commentary Bamidbar 31:3

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