On the verge of entering the Promised Land, the children of Israel must fight the Midianite people first. Although Moses instructs his warriors, according to God’s directive, to slay all the Midianites, Moses is angered when the army spares the women and children.
Were the Israelite people freed so they would unquestioningly carry out God’s dirty work?
Or was this a test to see if we were worthy of freedom and the responsibilities such freedom carries? Were we ready to serve God as a righteous light to the nations? The army commanders understood the implications of this barbaric act and refused to follow the order. Moses overruled them, demanding harsh vengeance.
This kind of retaliation is appalling by our standards, and it was unacceptable for the Israelites, too. But, even where legitimate grievance exists, morality trumps vengeance. Matot is a warning for us and our interaction in an often inhospitable, antisemitic world.
However, the past cannot be the only lens we use to see the future. There was legitimate grievance against the Midianites. They attempted to undermine the nascent Israelite nation, and war appeared to be the way forward. But following orders is insufficient reason to commit atrocities.
When individuals assume that responsibility and act on behalf of God, it is dangerous.
Against this backdrop, we might look again at the lessons of this part of the parshah and see how we can apply them in many current world affairs and, in particular, to the situation with the Russian war’s effects on Ukrainians and Poles.
Jewish history in Ukraine and Poland is fraught. Persecution and antisemitism characterize much of the Jewish experience.
Furthermore, we understand that deeply rooted antisemitism enabled the Holocaust. These are substantial reasons for the Jewish psyche to be wary. But if we are limited to only that, practicing hatred in response to hate, we deprive ourselves of the very humanity our tradition teaches.
We Jews are duty-bound to see and respond to the Ukrainian people’s human suffering and the Poles’ heroic efforts. We know that the support by the Poles is something no one offered us as the Shoah unfolded. And knowing this, we can nonetheless be instruments in alleviating anguish and perhaps elevating ourselves in the process.
Of course, we do not deny the past or presume the days of Jew-hatred are over. But we can take steps to help the world become a better place. This is a lesson I learned from Parshat Matot.
Rabbi David Levin manages
Jewish Relationships Initiative, a 501(c)(3) helping seekers of meaning through Jewish wisdom, focusing on relationships and end-of-life challenges.