“Leadership and its Moral Responsibilities”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Matot, G-d tells Moses to take vengeance upon the Midianites on behalf of the Children of Israel.

As the Torah reported previously in Numbers 31:2, the Midianite women had seduced the Israelites, causing a Divine plague to strike the Jewish people that resulted in 24,000 deaths. Although the Moabite women had also played a major role in enticing the Jews, they were excluded from this retribution, either because as Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) in Numbers 31:2 suggests, Ruth, the ancestress of King David, was destined to descend from Moab, or because the Moabites acted out of fear, while the Midianites were motivated by sheer hatred of Israel.

12,000 Israelite soldiers were sent out to do battle with the Midianites, 1,000 men from each of the twelve tribes. Leading the troops and charged with caring for the sacred vessels and sounding the trumpets was Pinchas, the son of Elazar the Priest.

After a decisive victory against the enemy, all the Midianite cities and palaces were burned by fire. The Torah then records (Numbers 31:9) that the Children of Israel took the women of Midian captive, together with their children, cattle, flocks and all their wealth.

When Moses, Elazar the Priest and all the leaders of the Assembly went outside the camp to meet the victorious soldiers, the Torah states that (Numbers 31:14): “Vah’yik’tzof Moshe ahl p’koo’day heh’chah’yihl,” Moses was angry with the commanders of the army, demanding to know why they had allowed the women to live. After all, the women had caused the Children of Israel to worship Peor, the Moabite idol, and betray G-d, which resulted in the plague!

Moses then orders the leaders to kill all the male children and all the women who had seduced the Israelites, but to spare the young women who had not had relations with a man.

The rabbis ask: why is Moses angry with the commanders rather than with Pinchas who had led the people in battle? Some of the commentators suggest that Moses did not want to reprove Pinchas, who was viewed as a hero for just recently stopping the plague and saving the people. Others suggest that Pinchas was not at all involved in the battle, performing only the religious functions of the priest in charge of battle and caring for the holy vessels and the trumpets. Moses, therefore, only reproved those who had been involved in the fighting.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), citing the Sifrei, suggests that in his original instructions to the leaders (Numbers 31:3-4) Moses did not specifically order them to kill the women. The Ramban maintains, however, that even though it is not explicitly mentioned in the text, it is most likely that Moses did instruct the leaders to kill the women. How then could Pinchas have ignored the direct command of Moses and committed such a terrible sin? After all, did not King Saul, who spared the king of Amalek and had compassion on the enemy’s flocks, lose his monarchy because he failed to heed the instructions of the Prophet Samuel?

Perhaps Pinchas reasoned logically that in most battles women and children are not harmed since they are not combatants. Moses, however, presumed that the leaders would understand that, even though he did not directly command them to take vengeance on the women, the leaders would have understood that this battle was different. After all, in this instance, the women were integrally involved in seducing the men, causing the Israelites to sin.

Others suggest that perhaps the anger that Moses expressed was really directed at himself for not being more specific in his instructions. Or, by telling the leaders that they neglected to avenge the Midianite women, Moses was going out of his way to avoid charges of favoring the Midianites, his wife’s relatives.

The commentators point out that when Moses expressed his anger at the commanders (Numbers 31:14), Scripture adds the words, “Sah’ray hah’ah’lah’fim, v’sah’ray hah’may’oht hah’bah’eem mee’tz’vah ha’mil’chah’mah,” indicating that Moses also expressed his anger at the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds who came from the army of the battle. Why does the verse add this seemingly extraneous phrase, “who came from the army of the battle”?

Rashi points out that the extra phrase teaches the important principle that leaders are always held responsible for the wrongdoings of the people, for they have the power and authority to protest.

This powerful statement, holding the leaders accountable for the misdeeds of the people, is based on the Midrash Sifrei 157. It is a statement that should be prominently displayed on the desks of all contemporary Jewish leaders, in all parts of the world, wherever a Jewish community is to be found.

I write these words at a time when the global news is filled with frequent and increasingly mortifying reports of misdeeds of the Jewish people. Certainly, there is an extraordinary amount of good performed by Jews throughout the world! But, today’s sensationalist media obsessively focuses on the negative, and our people have given them abundant embarrassing material to work with. Hardly a week goes by without a new scandal in the Jewish community, religious and non-religious, regarding sexual misconduct, large-scale theft, horrific cases of child abuse, and now the brutal murder of a Hassidic child from Borough Park. It pains me to even mention these misdeeds. Obviously, in the age of internet and instant media, these vile actions receive a tremendous amount of attention.

It is not enough for our leaders to simply issue warnings, declarations and apologies, and regrettably, even that is often not done. Community leaders must add teeth to their reprovals. Violators who have caused instances of great chilul Hashem (public desecration of G-d’s name) must not be honored. Jewish organizations must be beyond reproach when it comes to internal finances. There must be zero tolerance for child molesters. We must ferret out potential miscreants and those motivated by raw greed, not shelter them. Leaders must be held accountable.

We must learn from the episode of Moses and the leaders of his time that, in instances of moral ambiguity or doubt, leaders must err on the side of righteousness and correctness. Even though such decisions may appear cruel on the surface, they will be justified in the long-run and spare our people from much shame and ignominy.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The Fast of Shiva Assar b’Tammuz (the 17th of Tammuz) will be observed this year on Tuesday, July 19, 2011, from dawn until nightfall. The fast commemorates the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, leading to the city’s and Temple’s ultimate destruction. The fast also marks the beginning of the “Three Weeks” period of mourning, which concludes after the Fast of Tisha b’Av.