Matot and Mass’ei

Torah Portion of the Week— Matot & Mass’ei

In parashat Matot, Numbers 31:1, God tells Moses נְקֹם נִקְמַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֵת הַמִּדְיָנִים, אַחַר תֵּאָסֵף אֶל עַמֶּיךָ, Take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites; afterwards you will be gathered unto your people.


The immorality and idolatry that resulted from the harlotry of both the Midianite and Moabite women resulted in the death of 24,000 Jews from a plague (Numbers 25:1-9). Rashi states that because Ruth, the ancestress of King David, was destined to descend from Moab, God spared the Moabites. Nachmanides, the  Ramban, suggests that the Moabites were spared punishment because they acted out of fear while the Midianites were motivated by sheer hatred of the People of Israel.


The Torah, in Numbers 31, notes that each of the 12 tribes sent 1,000 men to do battle with the Midianites, totaling 12,000 soldiers. Although Pinchas the son of Elazar, now a Kohen, did not personally fight, he was present during the battle, and stood with the sacred vessels and the trumpets sounding in his hand to encourage the soldiers. The Torah states that the Israelites killed every Midianite male and that Bilaam the son of Beor was among those slain by the sword. The women of Midian, their young children, the Midianites’ cattle, flocks and all their wealth was taken as spoils. The homes of the Midianites and their palaces were burnt in fire.

When Moses saw that the Israelites had allowed the Midianite women to live, he was angry and ordered the soldiers to kill every woman who had previously lain with a man, as well as all the male children. The spoils of the war, the booty, were distributed equitably–half to the soldiers and the remaining half to the rest of the People of Israel.

Of course, this is not the only instance in which Israel is instructed by God to make war. In the war with Amalek (Exodus 17:8-13) the Israelites killed all the inhabitants–men, women, and children and even their animals. And so it was with the battles with the seven Canaanite nations when Israel conquered the Promised Land with Joshua as the leader.

Of course, all this took place in a different era, over 3,000 years ago, at a time when the prevailing values were much different than contemporary values, and yet it is quite evident that Judaism was extremely sophisticated in its rules of warfare.

Nothing in Judaism is more sacred than the sanctity of human life, whether that life is Jewish or non-Jewish. In fact, the utopian dream of peace is articulated by the prophet, in Isaiah 2:4:

And they [the nations] shall beat their swords into Plowshares,
And their spears into pruning-hooks;
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war anymore.


Rashi on Exodus 20:22, cites the Midrash Mechilta that explains that iron and implements of iron are forbidden to be used in the construction of the altar because the stones of the altar were intended to atone for the human being’s sins and to prolong life. Iron and weapons of iron shorten life. King David was forbidden to build the Temple in Jerusalem because of the blood he shed in warfare (I Chronicles 22:8).


Maimonides in the Laws of Kings 6:4, remarkably claims that members of the seven Canaanite nations and even those of the detested nation of Amalek, who were prepared to accept the Noahide principles of basic common humanity could be spared. The operating assumption is that the Canaanites and the Amalekites were non-Noahides. They would not abide by, nor accept, the seven Noahide principles: the prohibition of idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, eating an animal’s limb while the animal is still alive, and establishing basic rules of law and business. Thus, these nations–literally barbarians, who refused to accept even the lowest common denominator of human conduct, were killed. All others were spared.


The laws of conduct in warfare in Judaism are quite remarkable and far ahead of any other people of their time. Everything possible must be done to avoid war. However, there are times when war is not only justified, it is mandatory. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 72a, therefore proclaims, “If a person intends to kill you, be first to kill him.”


The Torah demands that the leaders of Israel must first sue for peace when they go to war. If the enemy agrees to live by the seven Noahide principles, they may be spared. According to Maimonides, it’s forbidden to besiege a city on all four sides–there must be an open avenue of escape. One is not permitted to cut down fruit-bearing trees even in times of war, even when Jewish soldiers’ lives are at stake. One is not permitted to destroy property for the sake of destruction. One is not allowed to close up wells and divert the waterworks. A Jewish soldier has to carry a spade with him in order to properly get rid of his bodily wastes.

While Judaism is not a pacifistic religion, it abhors the wanton taking of life. In ancient times, Israel was able to declare wars of self-defense and even wars to expand the borders of Israel as David did, as “mitzvah wars.” With the exception of “mitzvah wars,” a king could generally not declare war independently; he needed the approval of the 70 sages from the Sanhedrin in order to go out to battle.

Yet, there are strains of pacifism that may be found in Judaism. The fact that every Jewish soldier has to give a half shekel, (Exodus 30:12), as a “redemption for his soul,” implies that no matter how noble the cause, a soldier who takes another human being’s life is a sinner, and is thus required to pay atonement for his soul. Shabbat Shalom