Are We Capable of Evil?

Matot - Mas'ei, Numbers 30:2–36:13

D'Var Torah By: Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D.

Spooky figure in a forestWho distinguishes between Israel and other nations?

The enormous ethical mission that the Reform Movement has taken upon itself in the last generation is the spiritual and practical strengthening of the belief that all people are created in God's image. This translates as equality between men and women, including those who are LGBTQ, and it dispels a belief in the moral and religious superiority of the Jewish people.

I believe in the power of words. I worry about the danger crouching at the doorstep of prayers that elevate the Jewish people above other nations. We therefore avoid including in our prayers liturgical expressions of Jewish superiority.

In the Havdalah blessing, many of us do not say, "God who distinguishes between Israel and the nations," but rather, "God who distinguishes between good and evil." In the Kiddush we exclude the phrase "who chose us from all the nations" (Mishkan T’filah, pp. 604-605). When we publicly read from the Torah, we offer alternatives to the phrase, "who chose us from all the Nations and gave us the Torah" (Mishkan T’filah, 369). I choose this wording that I learned at Congregation Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem: "Who brought us close to worshiping God and gave us the Torah." Some prefer a minor linguistic alteration and say, "Who chose us with all the nations." While they may be aware of the logistical problem with this phrasing, they prefer a linguistic inconsistency to a moral one.

The challenge in our weekly Torah portion

The Reform custom of the Shabbat Torah reading in synagogue is to choose part of the traditional (Babylonian) portion of the week, to be read in public. This custom enables us, from time to time, to disregard problematic issues. How might we handle these verses from the double portion, Matot/Mas’ei?

"The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.’ Moses spoke to the militia, saying, ‘Let troops be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Eternal’s vengeance on Midian.’ … They took the field ... as the Eternal had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian…They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. The Israelites took the women and other noncombatants of the Midianites captive… Moses became angry with the commanders of the army… Moses said to them, ‘You have spared every female! yet they are the ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Eternal in the matter of Peor, so that the Eternal’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the dependents, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every female dependent who has not had carnal relations with a man." (Num. 31:1-18)

The question about the historical background of this tradition is not important. What makes this tradition challenging is the fact that we choose to include it in our sacred book and to read it out loud in public.

I think we, in our congregations, ought to read these terrifying verses at synagogue (maybe in a special sad chant). By reading this tradition, we admit that we are not perfect or different from other nations.

And, by reading these verses, we declare our responsibility to learn, to change, and to become better.

Who am I and what am I?

The disturbing passages above lead me to consider, would I have been capable of being a Nazi? Could I have been an ordinary, indifferent European citizen? Could I have been one of the Righteous Among the Nations? These shocking questions need to be asked in order to balance our engagement with Holocaust remembrance. And the honest and ethical answer to every one of these questions must be: "maybe."

Not a different planet

In his testimony at the Eichmann trial, author and Holocaust survivor Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel De-Nur) labeled Auschwitz "a different planet":

"This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. The passage of time there is unlike the passage of time here on Planet Earth. Every fraction of a second there goes on a different wheel of time. And the residents of this planet didn't have names. They didn't have parents, nor did they have children... They did not live according to the laws of the world here and they did not die." (The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, vol. 3, The Nizkor Project)

The brief, filmed testimony of De-Nur, until his collapse on camera, can be watched in Hebrew and Yiddish.

About 15 years after Ka-Tzetnik delivered these words, he turned to the clinic of Dr. Jan Bastiaans in Leiden, Holland for psychedelic psychotherapy for nightmares and depression, and over the course of this treatment Ka-Tzetnik's worldview underwent a dramatic change:

"In the past I liked to isolate myself far from human settlement. My desire was to be alone with Auschwitz. Now Auschwitz is crouching at the door of humanity. Regarding humanity there was Auschwitz, for it was not the Satan that created Auschwitz, rather me and you, just as the Satan did not create the atomic mushroom cloud, rather it was me and you. Humankind!" ("Tsofen: E.D.M.A.," p. 121; Ka-Tzetnik, Shivitti: A Vision, transl., 1989)

The search for pure evil

Ka-Tzetnik's initial need to divide between "Auschwitz" and "this world," between day and night, as well as between God and Satan, is understandable. Similarly understandable is the need of many others to believe that the Nazis were a different kind of people, "human animals."

The desire to distinguish between “us” and “them” is understandable, just like the astonishment at a world that kept silent is understandable. The distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" offers order and calm, and offers victims an “ethical certificate of insurance.”

The racist trap

As long as we claim that "they" were capable of committing these atrocities while "we" aren't, and claim that there are some people who are capable of evil and others who are righteous in their very nature, we are playing into the hands of our worst enemies. Ethical living begins to be a challenge when we realize that all of us are capable of evil and all of us are commanded to do good.

The Holy One is not a rescue company

I have no way of knowing if there is a God, and I certainly don't have any possible way of understanding Her essence if She does exist, but I prefer to believe in Her existence. I prefer a world with God over a world without God, and therefore I believe.

My open eyes observe reality teaching me that God does not offer general or personal providence, and therefore my God is not a judge or a police officer. My God is possibility; my God is choice. Faith in God for me is faith in the fact that there is a moral demand outside of me. This is the faith that commands me to do good.

God did not create Auschwitz, nor did God save us from it. Auschwitz was created by people. The victims of Auschwitz were people and the Righteous Among the Nations were people. I am grateful for my portion and place in history and life, that I did not have to stand on any side in this horrific ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, humans continue causing difficult moral tests. The goal is to dedicate ourselves to passing them successfully.

(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.)

Dr. Ruhama Weiss, Ph.D. is the director of the Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

What Action Heroes Can Teach Us About Matot

Daver Acher By: Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

Children in action-figure costumesA few months ago, I reluctantly agreed to watch the last installment of the Marvel Comics “Avengers” movie with my sons. The three-hour cinematic experience dramatized an apocalyptic war between the citizens of Earth (led by their mighty heroes, Captain America, Iron Man, and the Hulk) and the Titan, Thanos, and his terrifying supernatural army. This violent battle occurred because years earlier (in the previous movie), the heroes had not sufficiently neutralized Thanos’ power. “You should have aimed for the head,” the dreadful giant taunts Thor, as injured but deadly Thanos wipes out half of Earth’s humanity with a snap of his grotesque fingers.

When I revisited this week’s double Torah portion of Matot/Ma’sei and read about the Israelites’ vicious destruction of the Midianites, I was reminded of the dramatic scene in which the sadder, but wiser, hero now makes certain to annihilate his enemy without mercy. With our sensitive and war weary 21st century eyes, however, we read the blood drenched verses in Numbers 31:1-18 and cringe. God tells Moses to surely “avenge” (nekom nikmat) the Israelite people on the Midianites. In the very next verse, Moses instructs the people to select a thousand men from each tribe to “wreak the Eternal’s vengeance” (lateit nikmat-Adonai) on Midian. With zealous Phineas leading the charge, every male Midianite is killed along with five kings and the prophet Balaam.

The text continues its bloodthirsty rant when a dissatisfied Moses complains that the troops did not completely destroy the Midianites. It was not enough to take the women and children captive, seize their beasts, herds, and wealth as war booty, and burn down their towns and camps. The Israelites had the audacity to spare the women, who lured the Israelites to worship foreign gods in the first place. Moses commands the troops to slay every male Midianite child and every adult female. As one of my rabbinical school professors used to tell us, “Not the best text to read for a Brotherhood and Sisterhood Shabbat.”

I understand why Dr. Weiss suggests that our congregations read these terrifying verses at synagogue each year in order to “declare our responsibility to learn, to change, and to become better.” These verses highlight the Israelites’ utter lack of humanity. I don’t know anyone today who would want to be associated with this type of unethical behavior, this group of people, or this type of commanding God.

If we are to keep our connection to Torah, to understand it as a human document that can inspire and help us find holiness, then perhaps it would be useful to read this passage as a page taken from a mythic battle of light versus dark forces. Clearly, this Moses is not the sweet baby in his waterproof bassinette floating on the Nile, protected by ducks and ibises. The gentle shepherd has certainly lost his bashful stutter, and he has turned into a calculating general who exceeds even God’s own deadly commands in order to exact an unforgiving price from the enemy.

Apparently, Dr. Weiss and I are not the first to be deeply troubled by the violence of this passage. The authors of B’midbar Rabbah (a medieval work of the Rabbis’ explaining verses and spinning back stories about the events in the Book of Numbers) reinforce the notion that despite of his commands, Moses is still a caring shepherd. The midrash reminds the reader that the Midian obliterated here is an entirely different place from that which harbored Moses years before in his flight from Egypt and which still continues to exist. It also highlights Moses’ role as teacher rather than general, and describes Moses’ going out to meet the men who had come from battle, as we read: 

“This shows the humility and excellence of Moses, for they were all the disciples of his disciples” (Freedman and Simon, eds., Slotkin, trans., The Midrash Rabbah, vol. 6 [London: Soncino, 1961], p. 857). Moses summarizes his pastoral rather than bloodthirsty strategy for Phineas, “Before the wolf comes to the flock spread a net for him” (ibid., p. 857).

Foreshadowing the “Avengers” drama, the rabbis who constructed midrash bring magic into this Torah story. Moses warns Phineas, “If you see that wicked man [Balaam] practicing witchcraft and flying in the air, show him the plate upon which is inscribed the phrase, ‘Holy to the Eternal’ (Ex. 28:36), and he will fall down and you will kill him” (B’midbar Rabbah 22:5). Indeed, like an Avengers villain, the five kings were also flying around, but fell to their deaths when they viewed the holy plate (or the High Priest’s headband, depending on which midrash one is reading). The Rabbis attribute the Midianites’ defeat to their lack of holiness rather than the diabolical enthusiasm of the Israelite army.

Of course, this is a horrific tale of excessive force. It is also an exaggerated tale of vengeance on an enemy that may have posed an existential threat to the Israelites at a specific time in history. Just as the Torah portion Matot is hitched to its neighboring portion Mas’ei, so too this story from Matot can be juxtaposed with the rules for intentional and accidental shedding of human blood found in Mas’ei that reinforce the belief in the value of even one human life (Num. 35:16-34). Those of us who draw close to Jewish teaching and to the Torah can find sparks of holiness generated by the friction between stories like these, tales of mass vengeance, and laws that proclaim the irreplaceable worth of a single soul.         

Rabbi Sharon G. Forman, was raised in Norfolk, VA, was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994, and received her honorary doctorate of divinity from HUC-JIR in 2019. She works in the field of Jewish education, and has served as a b’nai mitzvah teacher at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, NY for the last 12 years. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions and The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Inningswhich makes the seder accessible for lovers of these two springtime rituals. Her essays on motherhood have appeared in Literary Mama, Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, The Bitter Southerner, Kveller,, and She resides in Westchester County, NY, with her husband and three children.

Reference Materials

Matot/Mas-ei, Numbers 30:2−36:13
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,215−1,248; Revised Edition, pp. 1,099−1,133
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 989–1,036
Second Haftarah of Affliction, Jeremiah 2:4–28; 3:4
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,282–1,286, Revised Edition, pp. 1,135–1,138

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