[Eleven years ago I wrote the words you are about to read. I’m tweaked them a bit for this year. I find it difficult to read this week’s parasha and haftarah without also thinking about what is taking place in Israel and Gaza. I’m not here to make a political argument. The situation is far too complex to be dealt with in simple terms. I am not here to be a Jeremiah, though it is difficult, at best, to ignore the clarion call of the words of this haftarah. On that subject, I’d like to commend to you this poem by my friend Stacey Z. Robinson based on this week’s haftarah: http://staceyzrobinson.blogspot.com/2014/07/i-knew-you-once.html.
I am not making a direct comparison between the present hostilities and the one described in the parasha as to whether or not what is happening in Israel and Gaza is “over the top” – on the part of any and all sides in this conflict. That is something we all need to think about and determine for ourselves, and there are many, many factors to be considered. Evidence of both restraint and a thirst for vengeance seems to exist on all sides. However, insofar as a plea that humanity seek ways to avoid going “over the top,” I stand by my words.]
Over the Top
We’ve all done it–gone “over the top.” Nadav and Avihu did it when they offered alien fire on the altar. Pinchas did it when he speared Zimri and Cozbi. Moshe rabbeinu did it when he struck the rock and spoke in anger. And now he does it again.It’s troubling enough that we read of G”d instructing the Israelites to take their vengeance upon the Midianites. They go and kill all the males, and take the women and children captive. Then Moshe rebukes them harshly for having spared the women and children , and orders them to slay all the male children as well as all well who have had carnal relations. (But spare the virgins, apparently. Hmmm. Is this mercy or something more practical?)
Slaying all the Midianite adult males was surely adequate vengeance, but Moshe must have been feeling particularly crotchety that day. (And no surprise either, since G”d has just told Moshe that he was to do this one last battle and then he would be gathered to his kin.) It surely wasn’t necessary for Moshe to further insist on the slaying of the male children and non-virginal women. There’s no record of G”d saying to Moshe “hey, that wasn’t enough vengeance!” It was “over the top” on Moshe’s part.
So perhaps it was time for Moshe to be gathered to his kin. Just as G”d did with Pinchas, co-opting his zeal into a very public priesthood where his zealousness could be kept in check, he would now do the same with Moshe. (Note, by the way, that it is Pinchas who is sent along as Priest with the troops attacking the Midianites. Very interesting.) If it wasn’t clear before that the time had come to remove Moshe from his lofty pinnacle of power, this latest “over the top” act was proof enough.
Even G”d, it seems, has a tendency to occasionally go “over the top.” We can go back to the flood, or perhaps even to the expulsion from Gan Eden of Adam and Chava. The plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. Need I go on?
As we are made b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of G”d, then, as I have suggested before, it’s no surprise that G”d and Humans should share some of the same intemperate traits. G”d well knows the dangers of going over the top, and is keenly aware of when it’s time to keep Moshe from losing control of this trait in himself any more.
Next week, when we read the second part on this usually double parasha, we will read of the instruction to create cities of refuge for those who cause inadvertent or accidental death to another so that they may be safe from the blood vengeance of the deceased’s family. Yet another recognition on G”d’s part how G”d’s own trait to go “over the top” is part of G”d’s creation, humanity, as well? After all, think about it. Does it really make sense for the family member of one who is killed to be obligated to pursue and slay the slayer? Yes, I know– eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. But these were punishments to be exacted by the community, under a system of laws and justice. Even back then, they were not justification for taking the law into your own hands, for taking your own vengeance. Yet, because of this tendency to go “over the top” in reaction to the killing of a relative (although is any reaction to the death of a loved one really “over the top”, I have to ask) we must provide the safe havens for those who accidentally kill to be safe from the crazed relatives of the deceased. (Not so the deliberate murderer, who is to be dealt with, although, once again, it really is the community’s responsibility. However, the cities of refuge system does leave a very large loophole allowing the relatives of one who is murdered to go and exact vengeance through the death of the murderer at their own hands.)
Yet humankind continues to go over the top. The crusades. The Inquisition. Nazism. Mutual assured destruction. The My Lai massacre. Tiananmen Square. Srebenica. Boko Haram. Seems we haven’t learned the lesson yet, which is why it is good that each year we repeat these same parts of the Torah. Maybe someday we’ll really listen and understand.
Yes, we’ve all done it. As Torah clearly shows, our ancestors did it, and so did G”d. So it’s something we have to live with? I think not. As with so many of the lessons we learn from Torah, it is another lesson for us to learn to help heal the world and make it complete and ready for the olam haba, the world to come. While it’s nice to know that so many before us have had this same tendency, one of these days, we have to finally overcome it once and for all.
Next time you feel yourself about to go “over the top,” try holding yourself back. Maybe it will become habit.
And bayom hahu, on that day, when we finally get beyond going “over the top”, then we’ll really be able to go “over the top” in terms of life on earth, to life in the olam haba. If only…
©2014 (portions ©2003) by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha:
Matot-Masei 5773 – The Torah Is One Of My FaceBook Groups
Matot-Masei 5772 – And the Punting Goes On
Masei 5771 – Cause and Effect
Matot-Masei 5770 – Treasure Trove of Trouble
Masei 5768 – Accidents Matter
Matot-Masei 5766 – First Fruit
Matot-Masey 5764-Putting the Kids Before the Kids
Matot–Masey 5763-Over the Top
Matot–Masey 5762–The Rebel’s Complaint and Promises, Promises