In Matot- Masai, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the horribly disturbing genocide of the Midianites. How can we understand Biblical justice regarding the war against Midian particularly? After the war the boys and women were brought back as prisoners of war. Moses was upset with the soldiers and orders them to kill the boys and the women who are not virgins. Today we would call that a war crime. All the commentaries I have seen give answers I find troubling to some degree.
I am not sure that there is an answer, by searching for some shred of meaning in this horribly meaningless mass killing got me thinking about a linked topic. Who were these Midianites? We first read about Midian, their progenitor in Genesis. There we read:
1 And Avraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. 2 And she bore him Zimran, and Jokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuah. 3And Jokshan begot Sheba, and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Asshurim, and Letushim, and Leummim. 4 And the sons of Midian: Ephah, and Epher, and Hanoch, and Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah. 5 And Avraham gave all that he had to Isaac. 6 But to the sons of the concubines, that Avraham had, Avraham gave gifts; and he sent them away from Isaac his son, while he yet lived, eastward, to the east country.(Genesis 25:1-6)
Why did Avraham send his children away? It seems heartless.
On one level we see that these war crimes have a long history. It is even more interesting that this story is resonant with another story of scorn and the Avot, patriarchs. We learn in the Gemara:
Timna, the princess of Hor, yearned to join the tribe of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov, but they did not accept her. So she went to Esav, saying, ‘I had rather be a servant to this people than princess of another nation.’ Esav heeded her request and gave her to his son Eliphas as a concubine. Timna then bore Amalek was descended who afflicted Israel. Why so? — Because the Avot should not have rejected her for no reason. (Sanhedrin 99b)
Both Keturah and Timna are rejected. We go on to commit genocide again the descents of Midian. There seems to be a sort of justice in that we were almost exterminating in the story of Purim at the hand of Haman the descendant of Amalek.
So while it is obvious that genocide is a bad thing, can we not also learn the more subtle lesson of the effects of what happens when we reject people who are or want to join our tribe? George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While we need to be vigilant to fight meaningless bloodshed globally, we also need to work locally to make a more compassionate and welcoming society. When will we ever learn this lesson?