Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Some thoughts for Parashat Mattot and the current War in Israel
Tammuz 5766

It is uncanny how current events and parsha seem to go together sometimes. This week's parasha describes a war that Am Yisrael wage against Midyan. Interestingly, Midyan is not a nation state. They seem to be a nomadic people who wander and attach themselves to other countries. In our situation we find Midyan in alliance with Moav. God commands Am Yisrael to fight Midyan as revenge (31:1): "For they assailed you by the trickery that they practiced against you" (25:18) in the planned seduction of Bnei Yisrael at Shittim (see ch.25). In other words, Midyan is a cunning aggressor who target Bnei Yisrael deliberately. And Am Yisrael have to fight them.

I have always been puzzled by this Rashi, and I find it very bizarre indeed. But in the current situation of flying missiles, this Rashi seems somewhat apt!
רש"י במדבר פרק לא

וכלי הקדש - זה הארון והציץ. שהיה בלעם עמהם ומפריח מלכי מדין בכשפים, והוא עצמו פורח עמהם. הראה להם את הציץ, שהשם חקוק בו, והם נופלים, לכך נאמר על חלליהם במלכי מדין, שנופלים על החללים מן האויר, וכן בבלעם כתיב (יהושע יג, כב) אל חלליהם:

"….Bilaam was with them (The Midyanites) and he would use magic to help the Kings of Midyan fly, indeed he would fly together with them. He (Pinchas) would show them the Tzitz with God's name engraved upon it, and they would fall down (to earth.)…"

Shooting down human missiles!

Another Rashi that has always bothered me, but is worth contemplating in our current reality is this comment.
רש"י במדבר פרק לא

בחרב - הוא בא על ישראל, והחליף אומנתו באומנותם, שאין נושעים אלא בפיהם ע"י תפלה ובקשה. ובא הוא ותפש אומנותם לקללם בפיו, אף הם באו עליו והחליפו אומנותם באומנות האומות, שבאין בחרב, שנאמר (בראשית כז, מ) ועל חרבך תחיה:

Am Yisrael are characterized as a people whose primary art is by the tongue – via words. We fight by our speech – by our prayers. Gentile nations fight by the sword. In this Midrash, Bilaam is in no doubt that the tongue is mightier than the sword and that Am Yisrael are at a distinct advantage. Hence Bilaam's method, his tactic is to attack the Israelites by the power of speech. In other words he uses Israel's weapon. In return, the Israelites turn to conventional battle, to warfare and defeat the Gentiles in their strength – by the sword.

This has always made me think from a contemporary Zionist perspective. Part of Zionism is precisely the ability to take History into our own hands; not to be the defenseless Ghetto Jew, but rather the fighting Jew. In addition, with all my belief in prayer, did not Gideon and Shmuel, King Saul and King David, Yehuda Hamacabee and Rabbi Akiva, fight on the battlefield? Is this approach a philosophy developed during the years of foreign domination, encouraging a certain pacifism and a move towards a philosophy that sees our power in the world of learning, Torah and prayer rather than rebellion and revolt? After Bar Kochba, Jews saw their strength in the spirit rather than the sword.

But from a Religious Zionist perspective, where does this leave us? On the one hand, we passionately believe in the power of prayer. But we also know that we have to fight. (See Rav Lichtenstein of the Ideology of Hesder http://www.haretzion.org/hesder.htm) We make no utopia of the world of war, but we do it when necessary. Is that what this Midrash is saying?

Certainly over recent years, military options have been proving less effective. Whether the US in Iraq or Israel in Gaza or Lebanon, conventional warfare – the sword – is having a difficult time against insidious terrorists. We realise that the power of military might is limited. And sometimes, prayer does seem like a logical option.

I know that I have no conclusion here, but the notion of where the essence of Jewish power lies – according to this Midrash – in the "word" is certainly an important balance as Tzahal bombs away at Hizbollah. We do certainly know that one of the great strengths of Hamas and Hizbolla is precisely their faith – their religious beliefs. I believe with a passion that the key to our long-term success here in Israel is ONLY through "the word." I mean this in the sense that only if we understand what it means to be Jewish, what Eretz Yisrael means to the Jewish people; only if we value our religion, history, heritage and varied traditions, only if we know the Bible and the practices of our people, will WE have the strength to understand why we are here and hence the tenacity – a quality that is essential for life in the Middle East – to stay here, to flourish here. And then let us take our "word" – the Torah – the Tree of Life, and let it give life, spread peace, truth and justice and compassion to Am Yisrael and the World.

With blessings of Shabbat Shalom, and Besorot Tovot.
- Alex


joshwaxman said...

"He (Moses) would show..."

just a slight correction. It is actually Pinchas who went out to war, and who showed them the tzitz. See Midrash Rabba and Targum Yonatan, that make this more explicit. (I discuss these two sources in these two posts:

Pinchas the Flying Priest and

Bilaam the Flying Soothsayer

Kol Tuv.

newloghere said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.