When you study Western history, you may notice after you passed your last exam that you were really studying the history of warfare. When you study Jewish history, you find something else. It is the history of moral triumph (and at times defeat), and the accompanying history of scholarship. One of the major exceptions is in this week’s Parshah. You have the Jews being told to wage war against the Midianites, and it is part of our sacred history-part of the Torah. The question is why?
It's not because we ever saw war as a test of nationhood. War is by nature brutal and often tragic. It is, however a test of what you are willing to fight for, and possibly to sacrifice for. Most of the wars you read about when you learn history were fought for expansion and a subtle but toxic something called national pride. (Think of the Napoleonic wars, the endless battles for a “place in the sun” that led to the colonial wars in Africa, the underlying issues in the war in Viet Nam and more). The wars the Jewish nation fought were by Hashem’s command to claim our land (after offering peace terms to the non-Jewish inhabitants allowing them to continue living in Israel as law abiding citizens who keep the Noachide laws).
The war against Midian was different. It was not for survival (such as the war with the Amalekites who attacked us in the desert right after the sea split). It was not because we were under physical threat in Eretz Yisrael. It was because we were under threat for our very existence - an existence which is defined by who we are as Jews.
They tried to destroy us morally by instructing their daughters to attract and later seduce young Jewish men. How did they do this? They set up a bazaar, and when a young man would come in to look at the goods, the middle-aged saleswoman would suddenly “need a break” and send in an attractive young woman to “substitute”. She had a script. Looking him straight in the eye, she would begin a dialogue that sounded something like this:
He “How much is the rug?”
She, “40 dinar. May I just ask you one thing before you go? I’ve always been fascinated by the Jews”
He: (with tolerant smile, always happy to help…) “sure”
She, taking out a box of tissues or whatever they used in the desert 4000 years ago. “WHY Do you hate us?”
He “I don’t hate you! Why do you think I hate you?”
She, “You won’t celebrate with us. You always find excuses to avoid being with us. There’s a major festival tonight. I know your type. You won’t be there. You think you’re above us”. This is said between little sobs and shaking shoulders.
He. “You have it all wrong. I’ll be there”
And he was, and he found himself in a world he always avoided, with women he would never see again.
What did they believe? We don't know much about their systems any more. Whatever it was, it robbed the ordinary Joe's and Janes of the idea of having a real relationship with the Creator. They thought that they were too small, to low, and that any belief in human morality or potential was an enemy from whom they had to escape. You find this today, when people who live with sins, that are described as ‘abominations’ in the Torah, cover it up with a platina of pride.
The name of their idol was Baal Pe’or. The Master of the Gap. The gap in question is the anal cavity. They would defecate before their god. What were the adherents of this bizarre mode of worship thinking? The Chassam Sofer explains that they were making a statement. “G-d in heaven doesn’t want (or can’t have) anything to do with us. We are base and gross. Unworthy and unable to relate to G-d’s transcendence and compassion. They were as the French philosopher Camus (who would have felt right at home with the Midianites) would say, “We are like whales stretched out on a beach” almost dead, but in the sun. Certainly, closer to an animal than to a person. Do what you want. The animals do! Would sum up their theology.
A rabbi was on a plane, and his seat mate took note of the kosher food that he had ordered. The other man had also made a special request and his vegan food came shortly after the kosher tray was passed over his head. “I don’t eat other animals” he said, making note of the tepid chicken served on the overcooked rice on the rabbi’s tray. “Why not? The “other animals” eat each other animals”, the rabbi replied. “Most are not vegan”.…
We are not animals. Our ancestors had to fight against those who would redefine them as such. It was a hard fight. It is a battle that some of us have to fight fairly often.
Outsmarting an enemy is the best way to do battle against him. Get in touch with your nature, and use it to serve Hashem. You are not an animal who eats because the food is there, and it looks good. If you take the laws of kashrut seriously it gives you the means of being truly human, not another animal. You can learn to feel the good “Gaavah d’kedushah” pride in being holy. Communicate with Hashem. He loves your words and even if the words of the siddur don’t flow from your heart, He loves the person who opened the siddur in an effort to speak to Him on His terms. Every mitzvah you do is eternal. Every time you learn something new, you are validating the entire purpose of the world’s creation.
You are important
Possessed of a soul
That lasts forever.