Thoughts on parashat Mattot-Masei.

Recently I re-watched an American classic “Saving Private Ryan”. The main character of the story, Captain John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, (spoiler alert) was killed by a German soldier whose life was spared earlier by captain Miller himself, in an act of benevolence and mercy. This motif, which is pretty common in western literature, reminded me of a similar theme in the biblical story of the total war against Amalekites, led by king Shaul. Shaul, after exterminating the entire Amalekite nation, spares the life of their king, Agag (1 Sam 15:1-11). This, according to midrash, allowed king Agag to have intercourse with a woman which enabled him to father children and thus keep his nation alive. The direct descendant of Agag from this “union” was Haman the Agagite, a man who, according to the Book of Esther, aimed and planned to wipe out the entire Jewish nation from the face of the earth.

In this week’s Torah portion we have another, similar theme. God speaks to Moses giving him the last command in his life:

Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin. (Num 31:2)

The reason for the revenge is that the Midianites joined Balak and the Moabites in hiring Balaam to curse Israel (Num 22:5-7, parashat Balak where we have a story of Balaam trying to curse Israelites three times. Every time he tries, he blesses them instead.) In this week’s parashah Moses sends a thousand armed men from every tribe – twelve thousand men. They conquer the Midianites, burning all their cities and taking all their property as loot. They killed all the men, including all the Midianite kings and even Balaam himself. However, instead of following God’s commandment they not only spared the life of women and children they took them into captivity. Consequently, Moses was very angry. Why? Moses remembered Shittim and knew it was going to bring yet another curse and another plague on the Israelites:

They are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the LORD in the matter of Peor, so that the LORD’s community was struck by the plague. (Num 31:16)

Moses is referring here to the events that happened when the Israelites were staying at Shittim, where the Israelite men: 

...profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god […]. (Num 25:1-2)

These acts of fornication and idolatry brought a plague on the Israelites. Midianite women were involved in these events as well: 

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (Num 25:6)

This plague, in which 24,000 Israelites died, was ended by Pinhas who killed this Israelite man and his Midianite lover while they were having sexual intercourse. 

But this is not the end of the story. In fact, the Torah tells us that Balaam was involved in all these events. It was he who instructed the Moabite and the Midianite women to seduce the Israelites and into fornication and idolatry. This is how Balaam reached his goal. He managed to undermine God’s protection of the Israelites by leading them into these sins. Balaam used the Israelites’ weaknesses and impurity against them. Had they been stronger and resisted their impulses there would have been no curse, there would have been no plague. 

So now, not only did Balaam manage to curse the Israelites previously, he was geared up to bring another curse and plague- even though he was already dead. The second, coming plague was stopped by Moses: 

Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.(Num 31:17-18)

An interesting midrash with reconstruction of ‘backstage events’, involving Balaam, was given by the 18th century Italian Rabbi Moshe Luzzatto: 

On his way back home Balaam passed through Midian and heard how the Israelites had committed harlotry with the daughters of Moab and had thereby been led into idolatry. He then realized that this was the only sure method of undermining Israel. He therefore advised the Midianites to send their choicest maidens to seduce the Israelites into idolatry. In this way he would forfeit the Almighty’s protection. 

Why was Balaam so persistent in his attempts to curse Israel? The Torah does not portray him as an unequivocally negative character. In fact, he is depicted as a prophet who speaks directly with God (Num 22:8-12;20-35). However, at the same time he is willing to openly cooperate with Israel’s enemies. We can speculate about his motivation and create another midrash: for example, we could say that Balaam was angry at the Israelites – he couldn’t curse them because of their righteousness and their special relation with God; because of that he lost his great deal with Balak who had offered him great rewards. Thus he blamed Israelites for his failure. Therefore, when he saw an opportunity to take revenge, he did. This would render him as a resentful and vindictive person – someone who was bearing a grudge. Another interpretation could have been he was a sworn enemy of Israel who was devoted to their destruction and conspired against them all the time. But then his close relationship to God would be very mysterious, as mysterious as the relation between God and Satan in the prologue of the Book of Job.

The power of hate, resentment, jealousy and all negative motivations and emotions can be enormous. Their power is greater when they are meticulously rationalized. Negative emotions can be very durable and live in human hearts for a very long time. Even if condemned and suppressed they can find their outlet when the circumstances arise. Superficial optimism can foster a fertile ground for evil forces. The narrative that ‘good will conquer evil’ and that ‘everyone can just get along” or that ‘all human beings can be friends’ can hinder our ability to root out evil both within ourselves and in others. Psychologically, sociologically or historically it seems that every group of people in the world has their own ‘sworn enemies”, even though they might not have direct contact with each other! Notwithstanding, this matter is not black and white and there is a spectrum between our closest friends and deepest enemies. Balaam seems to be one of those ‘in between’. Balaam can conceivably be seen as ‘a fallen prophet,’ who once had a true connection with God, but for some reason(s), either fell prey, or chose the forces of evil. 

Like Balaam, people are essentially internally split. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in The Gulag Archipelago:

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart, even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an uprooted small corner of evil.

We must be vigilant and be able to discern both the good and evil in human hearts. Blindness or naiveté to the complexity of these forces can have not only negative consequences it can be dangerous. But what is even more important is that we need to constantly follow the Divine law and wisdom, to be the light for our friends, could-be-friends or even could-be-enemies and to minimize chances of our fall and the chances that this fall, if happens, will be used against us. 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski.      

This sermon was originally published at:

It would really be appreciated if you could share this article and spread the word. Toda raba