This week’s parsha contains one of the most troubling episodes in all of Torah.
Back in chapter 25, the Israelites were caught “whoring” with Midianite (or Moabite) women, who introduced them to worshiping their god, Ba’al Pe’or. It’s bad enough that the Midianite women are held responsible, not the Israelite men who actually did the “whoring.” But to make matters worse, we see this week how an Israelite army inflicts revenge on the Midianites, by “killing every male.” To top it off, Moses (incensed that the women and children were spared) instructs the army to kill the captive male children and all females old enough for sexual relations because they might be among the women who introduced the idolatry.
I see no way to whitewash this passage. We should see it for what it is: a reflection of an era long ago when the biblical writers thought God might desire wholesale slaughter of entire populations as punishment for heresy. Such beliefs are still commonplace throughout areas of the world where pre-modern religious reactionaries still hold sway.
Most Jews, however, gave it up centuries ago. The rabbis who inherited the biblical story as sacred writ adopted the strategy of finding meaning in its details, while implicitly denying its character as a biblical mandate justifying slaughter.
One set of such lessons stands out.
Since one of the people killed was Balaam, Rashi reconsiders the Balaam narrative. Balaam had tried to destroy Israel by cursing them — by using words, that is; by contrast, Israel’s vengeance this week involves force of arms. This, says Rashi, is a reversal of roles, since words are the typical Jewish weapons, whereas armed warfare is normal among the nations where Jews live. Balaam had apparently co-opted the preferred Jewish weapon of words; the Israelites now turn the tables by adopting the usual weaponry of Balaam’s people: armed warfare.
Clearly, Rashi wants us to know that words, not war, are the proper Jewish strategy for getting on in the world. We do not murder people who disagree with us. We argue, negotiate, reason, cajole, and then argue some more.
Rashi is not alone; Midrash Tosefta makes the same point, both knowing that the ideal Jew is a talmudist, and Talmud is the honing of the mind through careful attention to words and the logic that connects them.
At the end of days, says Maimonides, the world will continue as it is now — except that oppression will cease, and Jews will be free to study Torah. Weapons of violence will disappear; the infinite joy of verbal debate will not.
Until such time, however, Jews too have had to master warfare. Here is the tragedy of the Jewish state: It is the only country founded on Jewish values but also where Jewish military might is regularly required.
I give you Torah and mitzvot, God says, “that you may live by them.” We do not “live” by warfare, however much we must protect ourselves by mastering it. We “live” by the sacred play of words; by logic, argument, and reason; and by the sharpening of minds: That’s the Jewish way now, as much as ever.