When I was a kid growing up in the early '70s, my parents wore POW/MIA bracelets bearing the names of American soldiers imprisoned or missing in Vietnam. Each evening, our family would scan the pages of the newspaper in search of the chart that listed the names of found soldiers.
In our paper, as in many, this vital, happy news ran next to other lists: the body counts of those known to have been killed in action. The American commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, was waging a battle with numbers--deflated in the case of the American dead, inflated for the Vietnamese--in order to convince those of us back home that the war was being won.
I thought of that when reading the thorough and antiseptic ways in which Torah describes Israel's prescribed journey into the Land of Israel in this week's portion, Mattot/Masei (Numbers 30:2-36-13). I had the distinct feeling that this time the English name for the book of Torah--Numbers--is more appropriate than its name in Hebrew--Bamidbar, or "In the Desert." For just as the Book of Numbers begins, so it ends: with an accounting of who is fit to fight in order to lead the Israelites into the Holy Land to carry out God's will. There is a frigid realism to the message of Scripture, a warning really: The preoccupation with "numbers" can numb the emotional and spiritual impact of what it means to take a human life.
But the Hebrew title for this complex book is also a fitting theological description of the spiritual state of being one encounters in such circumstances. The cold, calculated statistics of war leave us in a spiritual desert. This is a familiar, late-20th-century critique of reason. In Jewish theological terms, the argument has been best brought forth by Emmanuel Levinas, of blessed memory, whose critique of rationality demanded an ethical spirituality in which the reduction of another human to a number or statistic was forbidden, even sinful.
The Torah itself seeks to reconcile these two impulses by responding as humanely as possible under the circumstances of war. While the Israelites are charged to assemble an invading army to wrest control of the land from the Midianites and work God's revenge against them, they are also given a variety of mitigating factors to temper their thirst for vengeance.
In any case, according to the account in Torah, our ancestors "warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew every male" (Numbers 31:7). Among those whom the Israelites slew were the "five kings of Midian," along with Balaam, who had so recently earned Israel's devotion by refusing to follow Balak's demand that Balaam curse Israel.
When the soldiers return to camp with captives, prey, and the spoil (including all the Midianite women), Moses is incensed and orders that all non-virgin women are to be killed as well. We are, in short, reading about a slaughter. And it is a terribly confusing slaughter, since Jewish biblical history gives us positive accounts of Midianites as well. Moses spent time as a shepherd in flight from Egypt in Midian. His wife Zipporah and his father-in-law Jethro (from whom he learned much and received good counsel) were Midianites.
Two interpretive traditions found in the midrash are indicative of this ambivalence toward the Midianites. How could it be that just two weeks ago, we read of Balaam's virtue, while this week we read of his mendacity? In the blink of an eye, the Torah presents two seemingly irreconcilable views of one figure.
One cannot help but think of the descendents of these two nations today, Israelis and Palestinians, who struggled mightily but failed to make peace with one another at Camp David. According to most students of this conflict, it remains the most difficult question to resolve in the world today, precisely because Jews and Palestinians are so closely related to one another. So, as negotiators on both sides attempt to forge an agreement using statistics, facts, rational arguments--numbers--all observers wait for a spiritual breakthrough that will allow each of them to humanize the face of the other.
Of course, the lessons that one draws from this week's portion need not be political. The ways in which one encounters the world, particularly in lives ever more mediated by the deeply solitary experience of the internet, beg for a voice in the wilderness to humanize our existence.
Was it such a voice, in the wilderness of this week's portion, that pushed the rabbis to read a humanizing understanding of how Moses must have felt leading a vengeful war against a nation that had once helped him?
Another midrash about the Midianites offers a second example of this ambivalence. It is written that the "Holy One had told Moses, `Avenge,' meaning you yourself are to do it. Yet he sent others! However, since he was highly regarded in the land of Midian, Moses thought: `It is not right for me to cause distress to a people who have been good to me. As the proverb puts it: Do not cast a stone into the cistern from which you drank.'"
For generations now, in the Land of Israel and throughout the world, there are Jews who can recount acts of goodwill, encounters that have been meant to heal and not cause wounds. To be sure, there has been the horror of war and bloodshed; but at all times, there have been those brave enough and irrational enough to reach across borders, to look into the face of the other, to break bread, to share water from the same well.
The cold metal bracelet at the beginning of this commentary was a symbol of war, no doubt. But the very name upon it meant that it was not a statistic that was etched in the cold aluminum. Over time and with use, the bracelet was warmed by wear. The name was that of a man with a history known by someone who learned of his conflict, who sought to understand his sorrow, and to remember.