Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Matot 5776
The winds of war were blowing; the Israelites were to prepare to fulfill the word of God and take vengeance against the Midianites. The Moav/Midian incursion had left 24,000 Jews dead, and the time had come to settle the score. Moreover, the plan of attack employed by the Moavites and Midianites had introduced idolatrous practices into the Israelite camp; revenge was to be meted out not only to avenge their losses, but also to counter the affront against God. Interestingly, a close reading of the text indicates that God’s primary concern was for the honor of nation; He calls for the vengeance of Israel (B’midbar 31:2). Moshe, on the other hand, speaks of taking vengeance for the honor of God (B’midbar 31:3).
God spoke to Moshe, saying, 'Take revenge for the Israelites against the Midianites. Then you shall [die and] be gathered to your people.' Moshe spoke to the people, saying, 'Call up from among you men for armed service against Midian, so that God's revenge can be taken against the Midianites. (B’midbar 31:1-3)
This touching display of mutual concern aside, the reader is troubled by the sequence: Why is the narrative interrupted with certain laws, as opposed to proceeding directly to the battle itself, the much-anticipated and richly deserved revenge? Surely there must have been a more appropriate place to insert these laws into the Torah; the Moav/Midian incident is recounted back in chapter 25, and at the end of that chapter God first instructed Moshe to take vengeance. A census is conducted, which is understandable – both in terms of damage assessment and as a preparation for battle. The detailed results of the census are followed by laws of offerings, primarily holiday offerings, and then by laws of vows. Only then does the narrative return to the matter at hand – the Midianites.
This strange progression of topics – seemingly haphazard or disjointed – leaves the reader with two choices: Either we may view these laws as an interruption of the narrative, randomly inserted at this juncture and therefore unrelated to the issue at hand, or we may attempt to analyze these laws in order to determine if, in fact, they are logically, intrinsically connected with the narrative.
In fact, a common denominator connects these two sets of laws: Bilam.
Bilam was hired by the Moavite king to curse the people of Israel. To the modern reader, the entire concept involved in such a curse seems absurd, foreign. It is difficult for us to relate to the underlying belief in the power of words. Curses and blessings are often seen as “mumbo-jumbo” connected to a primitive, superstitious world. Therefore, we are somewhat surprised that God Himself intervenes to foil the curses that Balak hires Bilam to cast - not merely to deflect them but to transform them into blessings.
…and because they hired against you Bilam the son of Beor of Petor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless, the Lord your God would not listen to Bilam; but the Lord your God turned the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord your God loved you. (Dvarim 23:5-6)
Returning to the beginning of Parashat Matot and the laws regarding vows, the connection to the narrative becomes clear: The larger context is the struggle with Moav/Midian and their proxy, Bilam. Their weapon of choice was curses – words - and they were fully aware of the potency of this weapon: God Himself is the source of the power of words. Words create reality; indeed, the creation of all that exists is the result of Divine speech. For this reason, it was not enough to simply deflect Bilam’s curses; God’s love for the Jewish People caused the curses to be turned into blessings – words, to be sure, but words that have power far beyond what we might otherwise have imagined. The laws regarding vows reflect this same underlying truth: Words have power. We have the ability to shape reality with words, with vows, and it is therefore our obligation to honor our vows. The Torah carefully lays out, specifically in the aftermath of the confrontation with Balak and Bilam, laws that reinforce this underlying truth, by creating guidelines for making vows and cancelling them – neither of which is to be taken lightly. In turn, these laws – inserted specifically at this juncture – help us appreciate God’s role in transforming Bilam’s curses into blessings.
The other group of laws that “interrupts” the narrative relates to sacrificial offerings. Most of the laws of offerings were taught in the book of Vayikra; at first glance, the laws that appear in our present parashah would be best placed there as well. However, we would do well to recall the tactics Bilam employed against us: In his attempt to cajole God into allowing him to curse the Jews, Bilam instructed Balak to build a series of altars, and to bring offerings to God.
There is a certain irony in all of this: Eventually, the Moav/Midian conspiracy led the Jews to worship Baal Peor, but along the way Bilam and Balak brought offerings to the God of Israel, the creator and sustainer of the universe; perhaps their being dragged into the service of God is what inspired them to drag the Israelites into the service of their deity. Whether this was their inspiration or not, the ad hoc anti-Israelite coalition appealed to the God of Israel for assistance – or at least permission – to destroy us. And while we can say with absolute certainty that Balak’s offerings were ineffective in terms of swaying God, we cannot know whether they did have some type of impact, perhaps creating some positive merit for these adversaries of Israel. If that is the case, we may better understand why laws regarding offerings and vows are introduced as we prepare to face the Midianites in battle. These are not random laws, nor is this an interruption of the narrative; quite the contrary. These particular laws have everything to do with the narrative. The laws of vows express the power of the spoken word, and the laws regarding the “additional” or mussaf offerings give us a tool for approaching God. These laws enable us to counter the negative impact of the Moavites and Midianites. Only when these particular laws are internalized, only when the lessons of the confrontation with Moav and Midian are learned, only when we are given laws that enable us to counter the spiritual effects of that confrontation, will we be ready to face our enemies in battle, and, with God’s help, to be victorious.
For a more in-depth analysis see: