CONTAMINATED VETERANS – Mattos, Num.30-32 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s Sedrah tells us of various subjects, including responsibility for vows made by men and by women, a military draft and the brutal war against the Midianites, and finally the agreement for two and a half tribes to settle east of the Jordan. What we should not overlook is the specific command to the soldiers who conquered Midian.
Moses addresses the returning soldiers, after they divide the spoils and execute all prisoners of war who presumably took part in the religious seduction at Baal Peor, and Moses tells them: “All female children who never lay with a man, you may keep alive for yourselves. But you must stay outside the camp for 7 days. Whoever killed, or touched a dead body, purify yourselves for 7 days, and decontaminate all clothing, and anything made of leather, goat’s hair or wood.”
War contaminates the fighters, whether they win or lose. Back in Chapter 19, we learned about the 7-day quarantine for anyone touching a dead body. Here, as Rashi points out, quoting Rabbi Meir, contamination is not limited to touching. “Whoever killed or touched,” said Moses. The law includes killing with an arrow shot from a bow, because just as the weapon becomes contaminated, so does the shooter.
Does that contamination extend to killing with a gun, a torpedo – or a truck? Our soldiers, whether American or Israeli, do not get quarantined after every battle these days. But apparently, the soldiers who conquered Midian didn’t either. Only after the fighting was over. How does that apply to situations that go on for months? Clearly, it would be more than difficult to invoke Biblical law in modern warfare.
What does seem applicable, however, is the principle behind this law. Unlike some of our enemies, we do not celebrate mass murderers or promise them all those virgins in heaven. Fighting a war requires killing enemies. Life is a gift from G-d, even if that life threatens our own. When we are the killers, we are necessarily contaminated, whether physically or psychologically. That condition can show in post-traumatic afflictions, nervous disorders, and types of contamination that no 7-day treatment can cure. Violent conflicts produce human effects that challenge our best minds, and we still cannot come up with a way to prevent violence.
One definite lesson the Torah can teach us is simply that war always contaminates. Understanding and compassion for returning fighters is at least a basic duty. Until the human race can find a way to real peace, we can start by housing and healing those who fought. Those of us who can still remember our World War II service can testify that when we came home we were welcomed, honored, given a GI Bill and mustering out pay. It was a time of victory and pride – pride in our country and pride of our troops. Since then, every armed campaign became a political controversy. Results impact the volunteers who served. Today too many returning veterans are treated as if they truly have a contagious disease. To our shame, we pass them begging on streetcorners, or sleeping under bridges. By ignoring their plight, we contaminate ourselves.
Let’s take them off the street. Relieve their war-induced victimhood. They fought our battle. Yes, war contaminated them. Their contamination is our contamination!