Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 22 July 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

Parshat Matot - Masei

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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Why Vengeance against Midian, but Not against Moav

In this parsha G-d commands Moshe to take vengeance for the Children of Israel against the Midianites. The commentators are all puzzled by the fact that Moshe is not commanded to take vengeance against the Moabites when it was the Moabite women who seduced the Jewish men into intimate immorality and idolatry.

Abarbanel explains that the Midianites were actually the instigators. He explains that Bilaam, after having failed to curse the Children of Israel, passed through Midian and advised them that the only way to bring about the downfall of the Jewish nation was through seduction. Bilaam remained in Midian in order to work out a plan. The Midianites gave their daughters free rein to encourage Klal Yisrael to transgress. Since the Jewish People had no quarrel with the Moabites, and had actually been instructed not to distress them or provoke war with them, the Midianite women were able to disguise themselves as Moabites and were able to circulate among the Jews, ostensibly selling them food and other supplies. Thus, when the Torah states in Parshat Balak, “Israel settled in Sheetim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab” — they were actually involved with Midianite women.

Abarbanel offers another possible explanation. When the Torah states that “the people began to commit harlotry” it is referring to the idea that the Moabite women acted first, and when the Midianite women saw that the men were vulnerable they decided to use such seduction as a means to entice them to idolatry as well. This is why taking vengeance referred to Midian alone, as the Torah states in Parshat Pinchas, “Harass the Midianites and smite them, for they harassed you through their conspiracy that they conspired against you in the matter of Peor (the idol the Jews were enticed to worship).” The Moabite women caused the men to give in to their physical desires, but the Midianite women enticed them to commit idolatry, a much more serious and damaging transgression.

According to both explanations, however, the Midianite women were clearly guilty of bringing about both immorality and idolatry. This is reflected in Moshe’s charge to the people after G-d had instructed him to “take vengeance for the Jewish People against the Midianites.” When he instructs the people, however, he tells them: “Arm men from among yourselves, that they may be against Midian to inflict G-d’s vengeance against Midian.” The vengeance for intimate immorality belongs to the people, but the vengeance for idolatry belongs to G-d.


Why the Encampments are Repeated

This parsha begins with a listing of the nation’s encampments during the forty-year sojourn in the Sinai desert. Since each of these encampments had already been mentioned previously, Abarbanel questions the necessity of mentioning them again in this parsha. Abarbanel cites several reasons for G-d’s commandment to Moshe to repeat the list of encampments.

Firstly, the listing is a demonstration of G-d’s kindness to the nation, in that during the entire forty-year period there were only forty-two encampments. The nation was not required to be constantly on the move.

Secondly, G-d wanted to emphasize that the Sinai desert that they encountered in their travels was unlike other desert environments which can support human habitation either because they are close to settled areas or have sources of water which can also support agriculture. Later on, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe emphasizes this point, “…the L-rd, your G-d… who leads you through the great and awesome wilderness of snake, fiery serpent and scorpion, and thirst where there was no water.” (Devarim 8:15).

Thirdly, since each and every one of these places was utterly barren and uninhabitable, it was only due to G-d’s miraculous Divine intervention that such a large population of men, women and children could be sustained for such a long period of time. The prophet Jeremiah succinctly describes this miraculous reality, “…G-d… Who brought us up from the land of Egypt, Who led us into the wilderness, in a land of desert and pit, in a land of waste and a shadow of death, in a land through which no man passed and where no person settled (Jeremiah 2, 6)”.

Finally, by repeating the list of the encampments the Torah is hinting at G-d’s presence throughout the various sojourns of the Jewish People in their future exiles. As the prophet Micah states, “As in the days you left the land of Egypt, I will show it wonders (Micha 7:15).” Furthermore, just as when they were taken out of Egypt they were brought into the wilderness, so too Yechezkel prophesies that in the final redemption from exile G-d says, “I will take you out from the nations and gather you from the lands to which you were scattered, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm and with outpoured wrath, and I will bring you to the ‘Wilderness of the Nations’, and I will contend with you there, face to face; just as I contended with your forefathers in the wilderness of Egypt (Yechezkel 20:35-36).”

This may explain the repetitious phrase at the beginning of the parsha, “…and these were their journeys according to their goings forth” — i.e. "from their final exile." Another interpretation is that the phrase “their goings forth” could refer to the generations to come in the exile. Sometimes they will follow the crooked path — symbolized by the encampment at Marah (bitterness) — and sometimes they will follow the straight path — symbolized by the encampment at Mitkah (sweetness). This summarizes the experience of the Jewish People while they are in the “Wilderness of the Nations.”

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