Rabbi Benjy Owen delivered the following Derasha at Ezra Bessaroth last week, Perashat Pinchas; I want to thank him very much for his thoughtful and pertinent words:
This past week our community's children returned from Sephardic Adventure Camp – over 50 teenagers and children were led by an extraordinary cadre of counselors, directors, volunteer lay leaders and rabbis.
This past week war has broken out in Israel. The situation is the culmination of over one month of tension and anguish for the Jewish People and specifically our brothers and sisters on the front line in Eretz Yisrael. Earlier this week, I was on the phone with an Israeli who was in Gush Etzion. We were speaking and all of a sudden he said that the siren had gone off and that he had to go to take shelter. He later told me that the rocket that had been fired from Gaza had been intercepted by the Iron Dome system.
Many of us check the internet multiple times daily. We see pictures of Israeli children reading in bomb shelters. We read about layers upon layers of expensive technology to safeguard the Israeli citizens including our children. Israel’s concern for civilians extends to Gaza. As we know, Israel sends notification of upcoming attacks and takes extraordinary care to avoid civilian casualties. But I have been so disturbed to read reports from Gaza, in some cases, civilians, including children, have run to the rooftops as human shields.
This week’s perasha recounts the incident of Zimri – a leader of the tribe of Shimon – and Cosbi – the daughter of a Midianite prince. Pinchas sees Zimri and Cosbi in flagrante delicto – in an immoral act in public – and executes them both on the spot. For his zealotry in defense of the integrity of the Torah community, Hashem rewards Pinchas with a covenant of peace and the Priesthood.
The Torah then outlines a Mitzvah that only relates to the nation of Midian.
צרור את המדינים והכיתם אותם – Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them.
Normally, the Torah demands Bnei Yisrael to offer peace to an enemy that you are about to go to war with. Midian – no. Be hostile to the Midianim.
Normally, when besieging an enemy, allow an escape path. Midian – no. Besiege them on all four sides. Strike all of them.
Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
Malbim explains that the answer emerges from a close reading of this and last week’s Perasha. Cosbi, princess of Midian, was caught with Zimri the Shimonite leader. How did they get themselves into this situation? Malbim explains that there was a context to this entire episode. Bilam had unsuccessfully tried to curse the Jewish people. He knew that the Jewish people could only be cursed if they strayed from Hashem. He tried to convince Moav to entice the Jewish people to stray from Hashem. Moav was not interested in this plan. Bilam returned home. On his way home he travelled through Midian and shared with them his idea of how to successfully curse the Jewish people. With this knowledge, the leader of Midian hatched a plan. Use his daughter, Cosbi, to lure Zimri, the leader of Shimon, into an immoral act and bring down the Jewish People through the spreading of immorality.
Returning to the question: Why Midian? What did they do to deserve this hostile treatment?
One measure of a society is its philosophy. At the core of America’s philosophy is the primacy of the individual and his rights. The Jewish People are at a permanent state of war with Amalek because it glorifies a human-centered and violent philosophy. Canaan and the other six nations exemplified the philosophy of idolatry.
Another measure of a society is the value that it places in its children and in the diligence that it exercises in securing their well-being. The Torah commands us to educate our children to become Jewish adults. In most cases, we even prioritize our children’s learning over our own learning. We are responsible for our children like a lender is responsible to safeguard a pledged object. Sephardic Camp is so inspiring because through the camp we exercise this responsibility. At this unique camp, where, for two and a half weeks, a mini-Seattle Sephardic Community is created, we transmit our community’s minhagim and we foster relationships between campers, counselors and leaders that will last forever. The campers have fun together boating, swimming, being creative and playing sports all while praying three times a day, learning Torah and making berachot. We are ensuring a Jewish future for our community.
In Midian, children were possessions. The leader of Midian viewed his daughter as a pawn – an object through which to destroy the Jewish People, he offered his daughter as a tool to entrap the Jewish People. In this type of society, all tactics will be used. The society will even destroy its most prized possessions to beat the object of its hatred. Dealing with this type of society requires a high level of hostility. Therefore, the Torah commands us to be hostile to Midian and to strike them.
Needless to say, the situation in Israel is complicated and highly nuanced. The story of Midian teaches us that in going to war our leaders must first make a vital calculation about the enemy – how much value does that society place on its children? That calculation should guide the strategy that our leaders adopt. If the hatred of Israel is so deep as to contort the society’s responsibility to its children, it must be treated with great hostility. Prime Minister Golda Meir made the calculation in her generation. She said, “Peace will come when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us”. Our leaders must make this vital calculation for our generation.
May Hashem grant wise counsel to our leaders and true peace to Israel.