Parashah Insights


Rabbi Yaakov Hillel
Rosh Yeshivat Ahavat Shalom

Parashat Pinhas

Admiration, Emulation, and Assimilation
Hate the Midyanites
“And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, hate the Midyanites and strike them. For they hated you with their schemes which they schemed against you concerning Pe’or and concerning Kozbi the daughter of the prince of Midyan, who was stricken on the day of the plague because of Pe’or” (Bamidbar 26:16-18). Bilam, the notorious gentile prophet, gave the Midyanites a piece of deadly advice. His attempts to curse the Jewish people had failed, but there was still another, more sophisticated way to destroy them. The Al-mighty hates immorality, Bilam informed the Midyanites. If they could entice the Jews into licentious sin, Hashem’s wrath would be aroused and they were sure to be severely punished (Sanhedrin 106). The plot was successful, and Jewish men sinned with non-Jewish women, who further enticed them to worship Pe’or, their idolatrous deity. The consequences were immediate: a plague killed twenty-four thousand Jews (Bamidbar 25:1-9). Following this, Hashem commanded Moshe, “Hate the Midyanites and strike them, for they hated you” (25:17-18). The saintly Ohr HaHayyim provides interesting insight into this most unusual commandment. The verse instructs the Jews to “hate the Midyanites,” and also to “strike them.” Our Sages teach that the use of the two terms refers to two details of the conduct of the war with Midyan which were exceptions to the Torah’s usual rules. Ordinarily, before making war on a city, the Jews are commanded to offer the option of a peaceful surrender (Devarim 20:10). Here they were to “hate the Midyanites”; in this war, there would be no preliminary offer of peace. Hashem said, “Even though I wrote, ‘When you approach a city to do battle with it, you shall initially propose peace’ (Devarim 20:10), with them, do not do so” (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:5).


The Jews were also to “strike them, for they hated you with their schemes which they schemed against you concerning Pe’or and concerning Kozbi the daughter of the prince of Midyan.” This, our Sages tell us, refers to another mitzvah related to war. The Torah commands us, “When you lay siege to a city to do battle with it to conquer it, do not destroy its trees, wielding an axe upon them” (Devarim 20:19). With Midyan things were different: “To them do not do so. Rather, destroy their trees.” Not only that, they were to stop up their fresh water wells as well, a total departure from the Torah’s usual precautions to prohibit wanton destruction and waste (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:6).

Removing the Traces
Why was the war with Midyan such a blatant exception to the ordinary procedures for war? One obvious possibility is revenge: the total devastation of the Midyanites’ orchards and wells would be a fitting act of vengeance and retribution. However, the Ohr HaHayyim points out, a victor can inflict an even more painful vengeance on the vanquished. Rather than destroying his property outright, the victor can appropriate it for his own use, while the original owners are left to look on in helpless misery and frustration. The Torah itself tells us that “and you will eat the spoils of your enemy” (Devarim 20:14) causes greater anguish, and as such, is a harsher form of revenge. We find this concept in the curses listed in the Torah as well: “and your enemies will eat it” (Vayikra 26:16). Watching an enemy savor stolen booty is the most agonizing torture of all, worse even than seeing those same possessions demolished. What is more, Hashem later instructed Moshe to “take revenge for the Children of Israel from the Midyanites” (Bamidbar 31:2). Why was the commandment to hate the Midyanites not mentioned together with the commandment to take revenge? Clearly, the purpose of this war was much more profound than simple revenge. The Ohr HaHayyim tells us what this purpose was. Many of the Jews had sinned with the Midyanite women. Others, who did not actively sin, were caught up in sinful musings. Sinful deeds and sinful thoughts, even if they were never brought to fruition, both leave a blemish on the soul. Its effect lingers even if we are not sinning now, and even if we do not intend to sin in the future. As long as that blemish is there, we will somehow feel that even if we don’t plan to actually sin ourselves, G-d forbid, it would still be fun. It is for this reason that we are obligated to detach ourselves from the sin altogether. As long as we retain this mindset – that sin is an enjoyable experience to look forward to – we cannot achieve atonement. There was only one way for the Jews to rid themselves of the poisonous traces of sin which still clung to them: they had to “hate the Midyanites.” Why was it so important to hate them? Because “they schemed against you concerning Pe’or and

concerning Kozbi the daughter of the prince of Midyan,” or in other words, because they made the nation sin. The Torah is telling us that we should not hold on to a suppressed longing for our sins of days gone by, along with nostalgic affection for our companions in crime. Rather, we should despise both sin and its purveyors, and break all contact with them, emotional as well as material. Even their possessions – their “fruit trees and water springs” – should be destroyed. Attractive and useful as they might seem, we should allow no traces to survive which might remind us of our earlier sinful connection with them.

True Repentance
This commandment is based on a profound understanding of human nature. Our Sages tell us how we can gauge the sincerity of a sinner’s repentance. When he destroys the tools of his sin, we know that he has truly put it behind him (Sanhedrin 25a). To use their example, if a gambler is still too attached to his dice or poker chips to do away with them, it shows that he is still attached to the sin they represent. The blemish to his soul caused by his transgression still exists, preventing him from achieving atonement. When he is finally capable of shattering these things with his own hands, the blemish is gone. If he cannot bear to part with them, there is still a link connecting him to the old sin. Now we can understand why Hashem commanded the Jewish people to “hate the Midyanites and strike them,” along with what seemed to be useful property. When the nation could truly hate them and their appealing material goods, it was a sign that they were purified and capable of achieving atonement.

Impressed with the Instigators
The Ohr HaHayyim tells us that we should despise those who instigate sin, together with whatever benefits they appear to bring with them. He cites King David’s words, “Those who hate You, Hashem, I hate” (Tehillim 139:21). The word misanecha, “those who hate You,” may be understood as masni’echa, “those who cause You to be hated.” This is similar to our Sages’ interpretation of the verse, “All those who hate Me love death” (Mishle 8:36). They say, “Do not read misan’ie, ‘those who hate Me,’ but rather masni’ie, ‘those who cause Me to be hated’” (Shabbat 114a). When Bilam came to the Jewish camp, he took a careful look around. He found “a nation who dwells alone” (Bamidbar 23:9), of whom he could only say, “How good are your tents, Yaakov” (Bamidbar 24:5). The Jews in the desert were worthy descendents of their ancestor Avraham, who stood apart from the world at large, avoiding its toxic, impure influences (Bereshit Rabbah 42:8).


With his evil counsel, Bilam sought to pave the way to the Jews’ eventual assimilation, by arousing their appreciation and admiration for the surrounding nonJewish nations and their culture. When they began to be impressed with the behavior and accomplishments of these nations, the first drops of poison trickled into their hearts. Admiration would quickly develop into emulation and finally, assimilation, G-d forbid. This admiration, the very root of assimilation, is the blemish described by the Ohr HaHayyim. The way to correct this blemish is by hating the Midyanites. The Al-mighty’s commandment to “hate the Midyanites” means separating from them and their deeds entirely, even in thought and emotion; they should have no place in the mind or the heart. When we have disconnected from the instigators and our bond to them has been severed, the Torah can then command us to take revenge on them. As we said earlier, the commandment to “hate the Midyanites” came first. The additional commandment to “take revenge for the Children of Israel from the Midyanites” (Bamidbar 31:2) followed at a later date.

The Way It Begins
The Torah explicitly commands us, “Do not favor [the non-Jewish nations]” (Devarim 7:2). Rashi, citing our Sages, explains what this means: “Do not view them with favor (Avodah Zarah 20a). It is forbidden for one to say, ‘how beautiful this non-Jew is’ (Erchin 14a??).” The Sefer HaHinuch elaborates. We should not find anything about idolaters appealing, impressive, or attractive. Deeds have their root in thoughts, which are followed by speech. If we refrain from admiring them, we will also refrain from making friends with them, seeking their approval, and ultimately, imitating their evil ways (Mitzvah 426). This teaches us an important lesson about the process of assimilation, applicable also – in fact specifically – in our own day and age. It begins so simply... Secular literature at all levels and the media in all its manifestations convince us that nonJewish ideals and modes, which are immoral and antithetical to Torah, are actually lovely and noble. They are not; they are an expression of the innermost feelings of those who produced them, which are far from beautiful and pure. And yet, we listen to their music and it is magnificent. We wear their fashions and they are flattering. We study their art and it is inspiring. We are awed by their sophisticated wisdom and their mighty deeds, and we cannot help but think that they have accomplished great things – they really must be something special. These attitudes open our hearts to the nations’ inherent impurity. We like what they have and what they do, and we want it for ourselves as well. May G-d spare us, but when that happens, we are already on our way down to the depths of sin. This phenomenon is not new, as we learn from our Sages’ account of a critical event in our nation’s history. On the same night that Shlomo HaMelech completed

the construction of the first Bet HaMikdash, he married Pharaoh’s daughter. The festivities in honor of both occasions were held simultaneously, and the merriment of the wedding outdid the joy surrounding the dedication of the Temple, a tragic desecration of Hashem’s Name Our Sages tell us something about the way Pharaoh’s daughter chose to celebrate her marriage to the pious Jewish king. She brought in a thousand different types of musical instruments and had them play for Shlomo. As each one played its own distinctive music, she would tell him, “This type of music is played for this idol, and that type of music is played for that idol.” Shlomo allowed this to go on all that night, and he did not protest. It was then that Hashem vowed that the Bet HaMikdash would one day be destroyed (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:4). How could this have happened? Can we imagine that Shlomo HaMelech condoned idolatrous musical performances, especially on so holy a night? The answer to this question is especially revealing. The performance per se was not an idolatrous service; it was merely lively, contemporary wedding music, played in honor of the bride and groom. True, the melodies happened to be rather easily identified imitations of the music played at pagan festivals, but did that really matter? Presumably the lyrics had been carefully changed to suit the occasion – perhaps they were even sacred Torah verses, set to catchy tunes. But this did not change the source of the music. It was non-Jewish, impure and impious, and totally inappropriate for a Jewish wedding. It sealed the decree that led to the Destruction of our Holy Temple. We do not elevate a beautiful piece of non-Jewish music by giving it “kosher” lyrics. On the contrary – when we play it at our own celebrations, it drags us down. A Jewish wedding builds a home. Non-Jewish music, even if it is touched up to give it a Jewish flavor, leads to destruction, G-d forbid. How can we prevent this negative effect on ourselves and our families? By following the Torah’s commandment to hate the evil nations who entice us to sin, and by viewing all their achievements for what they truly are. The beauty and charm of their art and culture – music included – have a distinct aim: the glorification of immorality and ultimately, denial of G-d. If we despise them, viewing them with disdain rather than with envy and esteem, we disconnect from them and will feel no desire to imitate them.

Contending with Sinners
David HaMelech describes this hatred. “For those who hate You, Hashem, I hate, and I fight against with those who rise up against You. I hate them with total hatred, they are enemies to me” (Tehillim 139:21-22). As we see, it is a mitzvah to hate the wicked and do battle with those who hate Hashem. Practically speaking, however,

what does this mean? How are we to deal with those who “hate Hashem,” mocking Torah and mocking those who fulfill its mitzvot? We find the answer in the Rema’s glosses on the very first paragraph of the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Hayyim1:1). He writes, “And he should not be ashamed because of those who mock him in the service of Hashem.” Even if others are laughing at us for being old-fashioned, obstinate, or naive enough to be religious, we should shrug off their unpleasant comments and amused grins and persist with what we know is right. Citing the Bet Yosef, the Mishnah Berurah adds, “However, we should not quarrel with them, because the trait of brazenness is very ugly, and it is not proper to use it at all, even in the service of Hashem, for [this trait] will acquire a hold on our souls even in instances where it is not related to the service of Hashem.” In other words, warns the Mishnah Berurah, despite our good intentions, caution is in order. We may start out being rough and aggressive in the name of Torah, in what could be regarded as a permissible manner, but once the habit is established, we will soon become rough and aggressive without any justification. Where does this leave us? Should we rush to defend Torah, ready to fight to protect it, or should we remain silent even when others deride it, in order not to ruin our middot and refined personality? The Mishnah Berurah provides clear guidelines in the Biur Halachah on this paragraph (ibid. 5). Our response should be defined by the nature of the issue at hand. He writes, “Know that the Bet Yosef, who warns us about picking fights with those who mock us, was only speaking of a case when one does a mitzvah personally, and people mock him for it. Then he certainly should pay no attention at all to their ridicule, and he should not quarrel with them. However, if he lives in a town or a country where there are heretics who rise up against the Torah, and wish to enact laws concerning municipal or national matters in order to turn people away from the Will of Hashem, he should begin by speaking to them peaceably. But if they do not listen, he is no longer limited to peaceful negotiation, because the Bet Yosef did not speak of such circumstances at all. And it is a mitzvah to hate them and quarrel with them, in order to thwart their plans in whatever way he can. And King David, of blessed memory said, ‘For those who hate You, Hashem, I hate, and I fight against those who rise up against You. I hate them with utter hatred’” (Tehillim 139:21-22).

When the taunts and abuse are directed at us personally, we should ignore them and remain silent. When it is the Torah itself that is under fire, together with those who learn and fulfill it, or when the attack is directed against observance of Torah law in the community at large, endangering their spiritual future, our response must be different. We should first attempt to avert the threat with peaceful means. If that

does not work, it is time for an aggressive stance, using any legitimate means at our disposal.

Separating from Evil
David HaMelech says, “Those who love Hashem, hate evil. He guards the souls of His pious ones, from the hand of the wicked He rescues them” (Tehillim 97:10). This verse describes the very same three stages in ridding our souls of the blemish caused by sinful thoughts and deeds discussed by the Ohr HaHayyim. • “Those who love Hashem, hate evil.” If we truly love the Al-mighty, we must hate the wicked nations who defy Him, avoiding all contact with their evil ways. • If we disconnect from their evil by hating them, then we will merit having Hashem “guard the souls of His pious ones:” our souls will be purified of all blemishes. • If our soul is pure, we will be “rescued from the hand of the wicked.” We will have no interest in associating with them, and we will not learn to imitate their evil behavior. As we see, we must despise sin and fight against those who scheme to introduce it as public policy. Evil has its own power. If only we allow it entry – even the tiniest breach in our wall of defense – it makes its way into our soul and takes up residence. Once arrived, it is not easy to dislodge. This is why the Torah tells us, “Hate the Midyanites and strike them. For they hated you with their schemes which they schemed against you concerning Pe’or and concerning Kozbi the daughter of the prince of Midyan.” We hate them because they lured us into the idolatrous worship of Pe’or and into immorality, as represented by the Midyanite princess Kozbi bat Tzur. What the nations offer us is not the aesthetics of beauty and culture; it is poison lethal to the Jewish soul. If we admire them, the damage has begun. If we despise them and what they represent, we break away from their deadly embrace and free ourselves to fulfill Hashem’s sacred Will.


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