Commentary for Matot-Ma’asei

20 Jul

In this week’s parshah we come to the final stage of the war between the Israelites and the Midianites that has been going on for the past ten chapters. First the Midianites, along with the Moabites, hired Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Later the Midianites tried to destroy the Jewish culture by luring the Israelites away from God by sending people into the Israelite camp to introduce the Israelites to their idols (and many, many, Israelites did become idolaters). Now, having seen that the Midianites just won’t leave them alone, it is time for the Israelites to go on the offensive. The Midianites have tried every other possible tactic to destroy their way of life, so the Israelites resort to violence to prevent a physical attack that seems inevitable.

 

While the fighting might be inevitable, it is not something the Israelites are keen to do. Throughout their trek, the Israelites have done whatever they reasonably could to avoid violent confrontation with other nations. But this battle seems inevitable, so if they must fight, then they will. The Israelites send a relatively small force of just 12,000 warriors, and the campaign goes extremely well. The Israelites defeat the entire Midianite army and take their possessions as spoils of war.

 

The passage discussing the war concludes with a reminder that the surviving Israelite warriors must purify themselves and their clothes before reentering the camp because they have become impure by touching a corpse. This would be done using the procedure described in chapter nineteen of Numbers, which includes spending a week outside of the Israelite camp.

 

That passage is one of only two in the entire Torah to begin with the phrase “This is the decree of the Torah.” The second such passage is the epilogue to the war narrative, which discusses what to do with the spoils of war. In this passage we learn that the utensil captured from the Midianites should be assumed to be impure and must be purified before they can be used. These vessels did not want to become impure. The impurity was forced upon them through circumstance. They happened to be owned by non-Jews who used them to cook and serve non-kosher food, so they must be purified before they can be use to cook and serve kosher food.   Similarly, the Israelite soldiers did not want to become impure. They did not want to go war at all. But circumstances necessitated that they do so, and so they did, causing them to become impure and thus need to be repurified. Sometimes life throws situations at us that are against our will out of our control and we find ourselves having to deal with consequences we don’t like and never asked for. The Torah teaches us that in order to be able to return to “real life” inside the camp, we must first accept the consequences of the situations we have found ourselves in and adapt to them.

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