“Taking a Stand Against the Banality of Evil”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the first of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, we read of the battle that the people of Israel waged against Midian to avenge the deaths of 24,000 Israelites who had been seduced by the Midianite women.

1,000 soldiers were selected from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to do battle with the Midianites. The Torah tells us that the Jewish soldiers scored a resounding victory. They fought fiercely against the men, but were reluctant to harm the Midianite women, their young children, their cattle, and their flocks. They also took the Midianite’s wealth as spoils. The Torah, however, records the probity of these soldiers who refused to keep the spoils of war for themselves. In Numbers 31:12, scripture relates: “Va’yah’vee’ooh el Moshe v’el Elazar ha’Cohen v’el ah’dat B’nay Yisrael,” They [the soldiers] brought [all the booty, and all the captives of people and animals] to Moses, to Elazar the Priest, and to the assembly of the Children of Israel.

Moses sternly rebuked the troop commanders for allowing the Midianite women to live. After all, these women who seduced the Israelites to practice idolatry and immorality were the primary cause of the terrible plague that struck the people. Moses then issued a harsh decree calling for the death of all non-virgin women and all the surviving Midianite male children.
There is no such thing as a good war. Even under the best of circumstances, decisions must be made that may result in the deaths of more than a few innocent victims.

And yet, a moral nation has the right to defend itself.

The Midianites knew that they were no match for the Israelites’ military might. Israel had already handily defeated the two greatest powers of the ancient Near East, Sichon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan. Facing utter defeat, the Midianite leaders devised a crafty strategy to defeat Israel by having the Midianite women seduce the Jewish men to worship idols. Serving as a veritable Trojan Horse, the Midianite women were to entrap the Israelites into sin, so that G-d in His wrath would punish them, resulting in a Midianite victory. Needless to say, the strategy did not work, but did result in many Jewish casualties.

It is the Jewish practice in times of war to always open with overtures of peace before attacking an enemy (see Matot-Masei 2003, “The Massacre of the Midianites”). Confident that their strategy to seduce the Children of Israel into idolatry and immorality would result in Israel’s defeat, the Midianites rejected Israel’s offer of peace. Since the Midianite women were intimately involved in the effort to defeat Israel, the army of Israel was entirely justified to regard both the Midianite men and the women as mortal enemies to be vanquished. Furthermore, given the festering resentment of defeat that the young male Midianite children who survived the battle would surely harbor, it was determined to eliminate them as well and the possibility of having to battle a “fifth column” in the future.

There is, however, something unusual about the Torah’s description of the 12,000 soldiers of Israel. When Moses speaks to the nation, he tells them (Numbers 31:3-4) to send forth armed men, “ah’nashim,” to avenge G-d’s vengeance against Midian. The Hebrew term used to describe the soldiers, “ah’nashim,” generally means very noble persons. In fact, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) refers to these soldiers as “tzaddikim,” righteous people, explaining that they were just and righteous, not the type to be suspected of theft by putting their hands to the booty without permission.

Rashi’s remarks are rather strange. After all, if booty by definition is ownerless, then how could any soldier ever be guilty of theft? It is therefore suggested that, because this victory over the Midianites was a result of Divine intervention and was not achieved through the prowess of the soldiers, all of Israel, and not only the soldiers, deserved to share in the spoils of war. It is for this reason that the soldiers felt compelled to bring the booty to Moses and allow him to decide how to properly divide it.

But are not the soldiers of Israel always presumed to be righteous? Why is it necessary for Rashi to single out that these specific soldiers were righteous? After all, it was the Jewish practice that any Jewish soldier who was guilty of even a minor transgression was eliminated from the army and sent home long before the troops went out to battle.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986, great modern Posek, decisor of Jewish law), in Darash Moshe, his commentary on the weekly portion, states:

“…although the soldiers were allowed, even obligated, to kill and plunder, normally this behavior would naturally influence their personality, so that killing and robbery would become less horrendous to them. This would possibly result in a lessening of their spiritual stature. Therefore, the Torah testifies [in this instance] that even the warriors remained fully righteous and just, to the degree that they were concerned about the possibility of theft if the booty would be divided inequitably.”

In this remarkable comment, Rav Feinstein underscores the Torah’s unprecedented concern for the moral nature of the human being, a concern that goes far beyond any conventional moral system. According to Rav Feinstein, G-d Himself is mightily concerned that Jewish soldiers not be permitted to feel that war is simply a license to ravish the enemy in any manner possible. The soldiers of Israel were to understand that this war with Midian was exceptional, and certainly not the norm.

As I have frequently mentioned in these weekly studies, the world has a separate moral yardstick for the Jewish people, and at times, for the American people as well.

Moslem soldiers and terrorists are ravaging Africa (e.g., Somalia, Sudan)–looting, raping, burning, and slitting throats, with hardly any objections voiced by any countries or world leaders. Unfortunately, this silence has resulted in the brutal murder of millions of innocent people.

Contrast this silence with the world’s outrage over the actions of a few United States’ soldiers in Iraq. At the time of the writing of this D’var Torah, a small group of U.S. Marines stationed in Iraq is accused of massacring 15 Iraqi civilians in their homes in Haditha. Several other American soldiers serving in Iraq stand accused of raping a woman in Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, killing her family members and attempting to burn any evidence of their crime. The whole world appears to be enraged.

War is always ugly, especially when an enemy does not abide by any of the conventional and accepted norms of wartime conduct. While not trying to justify any immoral actions of the U.S. armed forces, we need to recognize that armies who strive to be moral in battle are often forced to fight with one hand tied behind their backs, while the immoral enemy conducts itself with extreme and wanton savagery. The Midianites were ferocious enemies who spared no effort to defeat Israel. In their desperate desire to defeat Israel, they were prepared, without remorse or compunction, to sacrifice their own wives and daughters.

G-d commands the Israelites to avenge the actions of Midian. He releases the Hebrew soldiers from their conventional battle restraints. And yet, despite having their hands untied, even in battle with these vicious and cunning Midianite enemies, the Israelite soldiers were reluctant to kill women and children. When the soldiers were specifically instructed to do so, the Torah was concerned that killing not become a mundane and acceptable behavior for them. Therefore the exceptionalness of this instance needed to be underscored.

The lessons to be learned from the war against the Midianites are fundamental. While evil may never be banished, the effort to eradicate evil must never cease. Similarly, we must guarantee that killing, even in self defense, never becomes casual or mundane, and that indifference to life (even the life of our enemy) never finds a home in the hearts of the Jewish people.

May you be blessed.