On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Our Moral Compass - Parashat Matot-Mas'ei

We all face difficult decisions, but how do we reconcile our obligations and the repercussions of our actions? We should always ask ourselves – what is the better or kinder way to speak, to listen and to act? This week, as we learn about Matot-Mas'ei, Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses the complications of ethics and war, hard choices, and the necessity of incorporating our moral compasses in the most challenging of times.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shows a new spin on the weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Matot Mas'ei. And he asks, what are the ethics of war, and how can we be a faith that continues to grow?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on the last two parshiyot of the book of Numbers, Matot and Mas'ei. It's a book that has taken us through a journey of 38 of the 40 years of wandering. There has been, certainly, moments of celebration. We've buried two extraordinary leaders, Aaron and Miriam. We've had moaning and complaining. We've had miraculous examples of our people's experience in this beautiful, spiritual journey that they're on. And now we come to the conclusion of this fourth book of the Torah. Amazingly, there's plenty in there to focus on. I have to say, there's one chapter that just screams out from these parshiyot. I'll get to it in a moment.

But let me just underscore that for the last few years, there's been a little bit of dissonance between the diaspora and the state of Israel about different issues. And I know we at the Union for Reform Judaism are working hard to lean in and to try and bridge some of those gaps. But one of the gaps is liturgical. Because of the calendar here in the Diaspora, we've been out of sync with the Torah portions in the land of Israel. And I'm told that there are people in the state of Israel who listen to this podcast. And I'm sure week in and week out, for the last couple of months, you've been thinking, how come Rabbi Jacobs doesn't have an accurate calendar, because we're out of sync. This week, we are in sync. These two parshiyot are being read and studied not just in the Diaspora and all of the places of world Jewry, but also in Israel. And sometimes, it actually is important to be on the same page and in the same parashah.

I needed to say that because this particular chapter that we're going to focus on, chapter 31, is one of the most, I would say, not just disconcerting, but, frankly, morally objectionable-- pretty much any verse, any chapter in the five books of Moses. If I were to tell you that genocide is something commanded in the Torah, you would say, you're escalating the conversation. There may be something problematic, but it certainly wouldn't be genocide. But just listen in chapter 31 of the book of Numbers in Parashat Matot, the first of the two parshiyot. It says, "The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, "Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites. Then you shall be gathered to your kin.'" That's to Moses. So he is to do one last thing. Then Moses says, Moses spoke to the people, saying, "Let men be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Lord's vengeance on Midian." So they take 1,000 soldiers from each of the 12 tribes, and they go and wage war. Now, the war is not to find Midianites who have been irresponsible or unethical, or even just sinful. It's to wipe out the Midianites. Just remember, also, you know some Midianites. So does Moses. Who are you thinking? Who's the most prominent Midianite that he knows? Well, how about his wife, Tziporah. How about his father-in-law, Jethro? Remember, Jethro, the Midianite priest who he meets just before he ends up being the conduit of revelation? And Jethro is so wise and so understanding that he basically points out to Moses things that Moses can't see about his own leadership. So it's not that this is some abstract enemy of the Jewish people. But in chapter 31, the war is on all of the Midianites. That, I think, comes pretty close to the definition of a genocide. And you say, well, no, no, no. If genocide is against people who are doing very harmful, objectionable things, well, the Midianites, besides having Jethro and Tziporah, they also have been quite violent against the Jewish people. But I have to believe that they're not all guilty and that some, potentially, are maybe worthy of battling. But here, the commandment is to take all of them down.

So then it goes on, in verse 9, to say, "The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive and seized, as booty, all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed, by fire, all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. They gathered all the spoil, and all the booty, man and beast, and they brought the captives, the booty, and the spoil to Moses and Eleazar the priest and the whole Israelite community at the camp in the steps of Moab at the Jordan near Jericho." And it goes on to say that Moses became very angry with the commanders of the army and said, "You have spared every female, yet they are the ones who, at the bidding of Bilam, induced the Israelites to trespass." So here you have our great sage, Moshe Rabbeinu, our rabbi, filled with, now, a vengeance divinely commanded, but also anger that they didn't go all the way, they didn't take that vengeance that they had been commanded to. So let's unpack and give a framework here. First of all, I am not a fundamentalist. I do not read the Bible literally. I am not alone. The Jewish tradition does not read the Bible fundamentally. We actually have an interpretive tradition. So we start with a biblical text, but then we read it through the lens of the interpreters. And I have to say, if someone tells you today as you're wandering, I follow the Bible literally, I uphold all of its teachings, then you actually have to really question, because this text is from antiquity. And in the 31st chapter of the book of Numbers, a genocide is commanded against the Midianites. I would hope that people today would be hesitant to follow the literal word of this text. I would also say that the violence, basically conducted in the name of God throughout history, is one of the blemishes on human civilization.

So here we have a biblical text, in my mind, that really demands that we not only argue with it, but, frankly, reframe it completely, that it's an object lesson about what we may not do. We may not hold all of a single people responsible for the deeds of others. And it awakens the discussion that we have in modern times about, what are the ethics of war, and what are the ethics of military engagement? My teacher in this and many other areas is Dr. Moshe Halbertal, who teaches at NYU Law School, the fall semester, and then he's back in Jerusalem teaching philosophy at the Hebrew University. He's also been a remarkable lecturer over the years at the Hartman Institute. He was one of the people that helped to write a document for the Israel Defense Forces called the Code of Conduct, or the Ruach Tzahal, "Spirit of Tzahal." And in it, they lay out the moral requirements of Israel's military. And it contains three basic values-- defense of the state, its citizens, and its residents, love of the homeland and loyalty to the country, and human dignity. All humans are deserving of dignity. Now, Moshe Halbertal not only helped write it, but he teaches commanders in the Israel Defense Forces regularly how to enact this. And it turns out that there is a little brochure that soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces carry that has the Ruach Tzahal printed on it. And one of the things that they're required to do is to minimize civilian casualties. It's not enough to say, I'm intending not to harm civilians. How do you actually make sure? And Moshe tells about working with soldiers who say, in modern warfare, there are plenty of times where a soldier could actually call for an artillery shell to be shot and not be looking at the place where it's going to be shot, but use coordinates. And so it takes away some of the connectedness. And therefore, Moshe also learned that some of things in the Ruach Tzahal are more complicated by the technology that we have today. In some of those settings, there's a real give-and-take. It's not absolutely clear exactly how you conduct a war ethically. And I know there are people who would critique the US military, the Israel military, and, frankly, every other. But the idea that there is a moral endeavor to try and bring those ethics to the conduct of war is quite striking.

Just another example or two-- the one that he uses very often, Moshe Halbertal, is talking about proportionality. He says, "When ordering soldiers to search a house, sometimes they would be required to break down the door to carry out the mission." But to break the TV inside the house, that's not part of any mission. That's just being vindictive. And it's understandable in the course of war that one might do that. But he's really trying to give concrete guidance to those who have to do the impossible, which is to try and uphold ethics in the midst of war. Now, I use that example because the book of Numbers, chapter 31, it didn't have Ruach Tzahal. What would have been the guidelines that the 1,000 soldiers from each of the 12 tribes would have conducted their war against the Midianites? They would have been prevented from doing what it was that God commanded them. So I have to say that there is much that, really, is challenging to think that a contemporary document, like the ethics for soldiers in the IDF, are more evolved, more refined, and, frankly, more morally compelling than a chapter in the Hebrew Bible. To me, that's one of the ironies, or one of the simple realities, of a faith that continues to grow.

So I'm not suggesting that everything in the Torah, we should be arguing against. Most of the teachings are things we should be trying to internalize. But we can't lose our moral sensibilities, our moral coordinates. And so as we conclude the book of Numbers and we look carefully at its enduring lessons, I hope we'll also take away some of its enduring lessons of what we must not do. And we must not hold an entire people guilty of a crime against us or a crime against all of humanity. And genocide is alive and well in our modern world. We, as Jews, have been the victim of genocide. The Nazis didn't set out to kill some of the Jews, but to kill all of us. And we need to carry these moral categories. I am proud of Dr. Moshe Halbertal. I'm proud of many of those who have created this ethical guidelines. And I am certainly one who wants there to be more ethics than we currently have in our world. And I admire those in the IDF who, every day, work very hard to realize those. To me, that's the more inspiring extension of the Bible's teaching on war.

So let us pray that war will not be the daily reality of all of our descendants. But let's also pray and hope that they will conduct themselves not as Numbers 31 asks, but as Ruach Tzahal asks, and as ethical, moral soldiers throughout the ages have always acted.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit reformjudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @urjpresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'heiroat!