In war, truth is the first casualty. (Aeschylus)

Reading our parashah Mattot ((Numbers 30:2–32:42)) while seeing the pictures from Israel and Gaza in the news is difficult for me. During the last weeks it has become harder and harder for me to read all the feeds on Facebook and to watch the news. I feel my heart bleeding because of all the people who are suffering, and I get the impression that no one is paying respect to the fact that the victims are human beings. The victims are just becoming objects in a propaganda war. German journalists (and I guess the same is true for the whole world) love to show pictures of bleeding children, dead bodies, or even only parts of it. The propaganda machine is presenting them like objects in an exhibition, trying to sell us a truth.

The Talmud is telling that God was crying when Pharaoh and his soldiers were drowning in the sea (bTalmud Megillah 10b). Therefore, it is hard for me to understand, why only 40 years later God is commanding to the Israelites to kill all Midianite males. Aren’t they “the work of his hands” as well?

In the Plaut commentary we can find something what can help us to understand the biblical report of the war against the Midianites:

“Note first that the war itself is hardly dealt with; the emphasis is on cultic matter … Note further that, while the enemy is massacred, not one Israelite is reported missing, which leads to the assumption that this section is not an actual report but a schematic reconstruction of events long past … only a portion of the Midianites could have been killed {if any} for not only did they not disappear as a nation, but they dominated Israel a relatively short time thereafter ..In sum, then, the details of the Midianite war may be said to constitute a form of biblical interpretation of the past.
However, this worsens the moral question. … What would move the authors of the Torah to write as though it had taken place? How can the idea of slaughtering so many prisoners be reconciled with the humanitarian ideals and the deep sense of compassion that are the very heart of the Torah? …
The fact is that … the Torah speaks within the context of its time. It accepts certain matters as “normal” – and wars, with their slaughter and cruelties, belong to them. The Torah does, however, require of men who had killed a ritual atonement – a unique provision in any human code – and it introduces certain meliorating {verbessernde} rules.”

Our parashah provides two messages for us. One is a clear statement that killing in times of war is still a sin, a crime against God, the creator of all human beings. And the second message is to look behind every story we hear or read about any war. Usually it is not the truth we are hearing, it is only something we should understand as the truth, trying to convince us to follow one or the other side in a war; sometimes to comfort people, sometimes to hide something we aren’t proud of, and often to change history to one interpretation in the aftermath. At the end, all the reports, postings, twitters we receive these days are nothing else but weapons, and as any weapon they can hurt and even kill. Our Jewish tradition tells us that words can kill and that’s why “Lashon HaRah” (to slander) is a major sin as well. We should be very, very careful about what we share, post, re-tweet and re-tell about any conflict or war. There is never a second in our lives when our acts have no consequences – neither in times of peace nor in times of war, and it is very easy to commit a sin against God. Never forget that “the others” are human beings as well, created in the image of God, owner of human dignity, as we are. Reporters, journalists and many politicians might have forgotten this, but we shouldn’t.

Shabbat Shalom


This Shabbat we read parashat Mattot (Numbers 30:2–32:42).

This first section of the parashah discusses the laws of verbal “Nederim” (commitments/vows). A person who obligates him- or herself with a vow is required to fulfil the vow. Under certain circumstances, a husband or father can annul vows made by his wife and daughter.

War is waged against Midian for their role in plotting the moral destruction of Israel (see parashiot Balak and Pinchas), and the Torah gives a detailed account of the war spoils and how they were allocated amongst the people, the warriors, the Levites and the high priest.

The tribes of Reuben and Gad (later joined by half of the tribe of Menashe) approached Moshe with a request. They observed that these lands were particularly well-suited for raising animals, and since these two tribes were blessed with an abundance of livestock, they asked Moshe for permission to receive and settle this area as their portion in the land of Israel.

Moshe responded harshly, questioning why the other tribes should go to battle to conquer the remainder of the land of Israel while they remain behind living comfortably. He also argued that their actions could dissuade the rest of the Jewish people from wanting to enter and conquer the land, in a manner similar to the negative report brought back by the spies.

The tribes of Gad and Reuven clarified their intentions, explaining that after they built cities for their families and animals in this region, they would join the rest of the Jews in the battles for the land of Israel. Only after it was fully conquered and settled by the other tribes would they return to their families.

This week’s haftarah (Jeremiah 1:1-2:3) is the first of a series of three “haftarot of affliction”. These three haftarot are read during the Three Weeks of mourning for Jerusalem, between the fasts of 17 Tammuz and 9 Av.