YOU KEPT THE WOMEN ALIVE? – “Mattos” Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
Punishment, revenge, anger – all motivate the story we will read in this section called “Mattos,” literally “tribes.” The heads of the Israelite tribes hear Moses call for 1,000 fighting men from each tribe – including his own tribe of Levi which otherwise does not provide soldiers but only chaplain’s assistants. This is to be Moses’ last battle, and he is told he must conclude it before being “gathered to his people,” the beautiful Biblical euphemism for dying. Even when facing his earthly end, Moses responds gladly. We can expect this to be a highly important battle.
The military operation has a specific purpose, namely to punish the people of Midian. To execute “Divine revenge” on them is how the Torah phrases it. Two weeks ago we learned of the sexual epidemic that took the lives of thousands of Israelites, engineered by the false prophet Bilaam. Remembering how that all started with the Israelite men getting seduced by the “girls of Moab,” we might wonder why the revenge is not ordered against Moab. True, Bilaam himself was a Midianite, but what about those girls? So let’s go back to Chapter 25. There we find the violent action Pinhas took to stop the spread of the epidemic. He saw a grandee of the tribe of Shimon take a woman into his tent, and Pinhas proceeded to grab a spear and strike them both fatally, through the tent. Who was this woman? Her name was Cozbi, daughter of a prince of Midian. Not Moab. Midian. Conceivably Bilaam saw an opportunity to destroy Israel with poisonous orgies, and brought in his own female operatives to carry it out.
Another reason for not attacking Moab, says Rashi, is because Divine punishment is withheld in consideration of one great woman who will come from there to join Israel and bring it glory. Her name was Ruth, who set the pattern for all future converts – “Your people shall be my people, and your G-d shall be my G-d” – and became the ancestor of King David.
So Midian gets attacked. Indeed it gets destroyed. The Israelites besiege Midian, wipe out the male population, execute the kings, kill Bilaam, and take the women and children prisoners. Quite a complete punishment, right?
Wrong. Moses meets the returning troops and he is angry. “You kept all the women alive?” he shouts. These are the women whom Bilaam sent to lure you to the orgies of Baal-Peor! They brought you the plague! And he proceeds to order them to execute all women old enough to have sex, and the male children too. Just keep the young girls… They’re clean.
Did Moses himself commit a sin here? The “Arizal” teaches that anger is a most dangerous sin. In his mystical thinking, when someone becomes angry his soul leaves his body and gets replaced with an “external soul.” Anger can make one forget all his Torah learning, misled by that external soul. Spurred by his anger, did Moses insist on a mass slaughter of defenseless people? Was this some kind of genocide? Or did he give this order in desperation, hopeful that this, his last battle, would guarantee his people’s survival?
Just maybe, our teacher Moses recognized in Midian the kind of dangerous deceit we see in some of our enemies today. Executing the leaders is not enough. Eradicate the source of the danger, whether that source is female or not. Just maybe, that last battle set an example that every free people needs to remember.