Parashat Mattot

Some Messages Are Hard To Deliver

The severity of the war against the Midianites should motivate us to examine our own behavior and root out our own forms of idolatry.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

Parashah Overview

  • Moses explains to the Israelites the laws concerning vows made by men and women. (30:2—17)

  • Israel wages war against the Midianites. (31:1—18)

  • The laws regarding the spoils of war are outlined. (31:19—54)

  • The tribes of Reuben and Gad are granted permission to stay on the east bank of the Jordan River. (32:1—42)

Focal Point

They [the Israelites] took the field against Midian, as Adonai had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword (Numbers 31:7—8).

[Moses said to them:] "Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally" (Numbers 31:17).

Your Guide

What do you think our behavior should be toward our enemies and those who have done us wrong?

Do you think that killing the perpetrators of idolatry will change the behavior of other idolaters?

Is it our responsibility to search for the potentially innocent individual rather than resort to collective guilt and revenge?

Does the reading of these passages affect our understanding of idolatry and the behaviors that surround it?

Are there positive lessons we can learn from this section of Mattot?

By the Way…

Although many people still think of God as a man on a throne, idolatry in the modern age is generally considered a moral error rather than an intellectual one. If God is the only thing in the universe worthy of worship or adoration, then anyone who becomes obsessed with the desire for wealth, beauty, fame, or power is said to idolize them. From a modern perspective then, idolatry is a universal phenomenon (Kenneth R. Seeskin, No Other Gods: The Continuing Struggle Against Idolatry, Behrman House, 1995).

The Eternal God said to me: "The hour of doom has come for My people Israel. I will not pardon them again. And the singing women of the palace shall howl on that day--declares my Eternal God: So many corpses left lying everywhere! Hush!" Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, "If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale, using an ephah that is too small and a shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals." (Amos, 8:2-6).

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Alan J. Levin

Alan Levin is the Regional Educator for the Great Lakes Council of the Union for Reform Judaism