Many years ago, a celebrated Italian academic, Umberto Eco, wrote a curious satire about the publishing world . The titles reviewed included world famous books whose greatness no editorial board was able to deny. The one of the Bible went more or less this way:
I must say that, when I began reading the manuscript, I thought the author really got it. Even if it is not clear who he is, and this might be a problem in terms of copyright, he managed to put together a plot that has everything the average reader loves to read: a lot of sex, violence, war, adultery, massacres… But after some hundred of pages I realized that this is not a book, it is rather an anthology, collected by an unknown editor; the text itself is repetitive, obscure, sometimes even openly misogynistic, with more than one unresolved contradiction. Plus there are several long lists of weird names and places never heard before, dry accounts of some obscure journey, which are frankly boring. I am inclined not to publish this manuscript.
This week’s Torah reading (Numbers 32:1 – 35:14) is a perfect illustration of that fictitious reviewer’s viewpoint. It actually has everything that a modern reader, searching for spiritual inspiration, dislikes: there is a very long list of places - where the Israelites have encamped in their wandering through the wilderness. The text deals with vows and oaths, and it implies that women are by nature less reliable than men. A larger part is devoted to women’s vows and oaths. God even prescribes the death penalty, with only an exception for those who committed an involuntary homicide. They must go into exile, to lifelong confinement in the “cities of refuge”.
And we have the story of the war against the Midianites. It is a war of vengeance, ordered by God against a whole people, because the women of that people have “seduced” the Israelites. Deeply disturbing, isn’t it? Furthermore, when the battle is ended, Moses gets angry with the Israelites because they have spared the women captive, against the orders to slay them, except the virgins.
The hyperbolic number of Midianites victims, as the absence of any reference to Jewish fallen, might be an indication that we are dealing with fiction, not history. Notwithstanding Moses’s order to kill all the Midianites, males and adult females, the Midianites themselves do no disappear from the Bible. Rather we find them in the Book of Judges, where they reportedly came up against the Israelites to oppress them.
So we conclude this story is not true. So why do we continue to read it? What do we have to learn from such an incomplete account? There is probably not so much to learn at an historical level. But there is, I believe, much to learn for us, if we pay attention to the personality of Moses. At the beginning of the story he is ordered by God to take revenge on the Israelites, yet he does not take part to the battle, and sends thousands of warriors to the fight.
When the battle is over, Moses becomes angry and orders the elimination of the Midianite women. A surplus, so to say, something he was not ordered to do in the beginning by God. Ramban, a medieval commentator, maintains that Moses was angry at himself, for the vagueness of the instructions, and directed the anger at the commanders. But if we think to Moses’ biography, things became even more complicated. Moses himself, as a young fugitive from Egypt, had found refuge among these pagan, idolater Midianites. And his wife, Tzippora, is herself a Midianite (Ex 2:21)!
The hyperbolical account, and especially the devastating outburst of anger by Moses, someway epitomizes the feelings and even the fantasies of many of us, modern Jews, dispersed among the peoples, maybe former enemies. Like what happen to us, European Jews.
Personally speaking, only very recently I have found the courage to visit Germany for the first time in my life. It was for a week-long Interfaith retreat, that I spent together with Muslim and Christian students, and of course a group of European Rabbinical students. None of us could escape doubts about the parents, or the grandparents, of our Christian, German, new friends. Fantasies of revenge were there.
And of course there was the challenge of the dialogue with our fellow British Muslims. We debated the issue of safe borders, in the Middle East, just like the Biblical account between the Israelites and the Midianites. How can these complicated issues be turned into opportunities for spiritual growth and mutual understanding?
A possible answer is in the paragraphs of our Torah reading, that follow the account of the battle against the Midianites. The Israelites who took part in the battle, are commanded to purify themselves, because they have been in touch with death. This is unusual, in the Torah – we have many accounts of battles, but not many of them are followed by ritual of purification of this kind, where the warriors themselves are reputed to be contaminated. After some paragraphs, we will find a recapitulation of their journey, which is coming to the end. Nobody who carries memory of death can enter the Promised Land.
This is a powerful message for us, modern Jews, who are on a journey to build a more just society, like our ancestors wandering through the wilderness. It teaches us that our Tikkun Olam, our efforts to make the world a better place, cannot be motivated purely by the memory of persecutions or by the fear of death. Rather the strength of our identity is to be found in the purest values of freedom and justice, which are the core of our tradition and this is the most important teaching of us, as Jews, to the whole of humankind.