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Mattot-Massai 5773: The Art of Distance

by in Matot, Masaei .

Especially in this age of celebrity worship, we raise our own standards of spiritual aspirations by setting up role-models who personify the values we most admire.

Tzarror vs. Nekom

The very worst of Midyan rises to the fore at the end of ParshatBallak. With the help from Billam they identify the core of Israel's might: It is in its moral fiber. Armed with this insight Midyan attacks the essence of Jewish morality, the exclusive intimacy of its family life and its relationship to God (both highlighted in Billam's exquisiteMah Tovu Ohalecha Yisrael prophecy, now the opening of our daily prayer book). In a shamelessly mercenary manner Midyan employs its women to seduce young Jewish men not only to sexually improper conduct that erodes families but also to avoda zara (the practice of idolatry) that drives a wedge between G-d and His People. The result: Twenty-four thousand Jews die in a plague. Midyan is not punished.

In the beginning of Parshat Pinchas (25:17)Hashem gives the directive Tzarror et HaMidyannim (make enemies of the Midyanites, -Rashi). Yet still, nothing happens to Midyan. It is only in Parshat Mattot (31:2) that Hashem commands the people of Israel to exact punishment from Midyan. Why the delay?

These two commandments are different. In Pinchas He commands Benei Yisraeil to make enemies of the Midyanites, (Tzarror et HaMidyannim,); iMattot,to punish them (nekom it nikmat benei-Yisrael me'eit HaMidyannim). The first commandment does not demand an action, but an attitude. Tzarror is the creation of a permanent state of enmity, it is not a once-off call to do battle with the Midyanites (Rashi 25:17). Nekom, on the other hand, is a call to action, a declaration of war. Nekom is the exercise of justice (Onkelos 31:2 and Or HaChayim D"H Achar Tei'asef) to deter other nations from ever trying these same base tactics against the Jewish People. Not so the commandment of TzarrorTzarror has a deeper and subtler intent. Nekom was focused on the Midyanites, Tzarrorwas actually focused on the Jewish people, not on the Midyanites. It was designed as part of the cleansing process from the aveirot they committed with the Midyanite women. Even many of the people who did not actually do anything wrong, were tainted by thoughts and imaginations.

Detachment before reinstatement

Every aveira (transgression of the behavioral boundary lines G-d has set in the Torah)) we commit leaves an almost indelible impression on our beings that compromises the way we think, feel and act.Teshuva (reinstatement, repentance) is the process of recovering our spiritual state prior to the aveira. The very first requirement ofteshuva is azivat hacheit (abandoning the transgression). Azivat hacheit requires that we detach from any attraction to, desire for or connection with the aveira or the experience we had committing it.

The very nature of the aveirot that the Jewish People committed with the women of Midyan was rooted in attraction. Even after they separated from the Midyanites, the attraction remained in the hearts and minds both of those who had committed aveirot as well as those who merely imagined the aveirot. For so long as the People saw anything attractive and worthwhile in the Midyanite people or their culture, they could not completely detach from their connectedness to them. Tzarror et Hamidyannim was given to the Jewish People to help them distance themselves from the Midyanite experience and cleanse themselves from the impact it had on the Jewish spirit. This commandment was given so that by regarding Midyan as our permanent enemy we would have no further interest in fraternizing with them or admiring their culture. Tzeror was an attitudinal mitzvah for all times, not an immediate call for action. (See Or Hachaim, 25:17 D"H: Venireh lefareish.)

Nekom Nikmat Benei Yisraeil (exact justice from the Midyanites on behalf of the Benei Yisraeil) in Parshat Mattot is a very different commandment. This one, issued later (see Or Hachaim ibid.), instructs the nation to go to war with the Midyanites and to punish them for the moral atrocities they committed against G-d's nation, the spiritual danger in which they placed them and the deaths they caused. This commandment is not focused on the Benei Yisraeil recovering its earlier spiritual stature. That had already been accomplished by means of Teshuva. The purpose of this commandment is justice and deterrence.

A model for discipline

These two mitvosTzeror and Nekom, constitute a remarkable model for discipline. When having to take disciplinary action, whether at home, in society or at work, it is important to discern between these two modes of discipline.

Mode 1: Justice and Deterrent

This mode does not apply in a societal setting where we have appointed governmental agencies to manage justice. At home and at work however, there is often a need to take an action intended to deter destructive behavior. In these cases we can apply two important principles learnt from the Parsha:

Firstly, be sure the discipline is motivated only by a desire to deter and improve behavior, and not out of personal anger, disappointment or frustration. (Although Hashem phrases the directive of nekom as exacting justice on behalf of the Jewish nation - 31:2, Moshe rephrases it as "on behalf of Hashem" - 31:3.) Do it because it is right and in order to improve others rather than to vent. If necessary, delay the discipline until you are sure that your intention is pure.

Secondly, try if you can, to avoid being the person who meets out the discipline if you owe the individual you are disciplining a debt of gratitude. (Moshe owed Midyan gratitude because he grew up there when he lived with Yitro. This is why he delegated the mitzvah to Pinchas - see Bamidbar Rabba 22:4). "Do not throw a stone into a well from which you have drunk." This is true even if you are sure of your position and your intentions are pure. The reason why even an individual even of the highest integrity may not sit in judgment if an accused or litigant is someone he has benefitted from is this same idea. The Torah does not put a person in the position of potentially judging against one from whom one has benefitted in the past. (Ri Migash.)

Mode 2: Distance

There is a second kind of discipline. This form of discipline is not designed to change the behavior of others. Distance-discipline is intended to protect you from spiritual or moral contamination through contact or attraction. This mode of discipline does not entail any action, just a modified attitude to the other and the creation of distance between you and him. In this case one accepts that there is an irreconcilable difference between ones own values and those of the other.

Distance-discipline goes further than identifying the irreconcilable differences in values. It even goes further than seeing the potential harm from contact and familiarity with the other. It goes so far as to detach from finding anything admirable or attractive in this other individual. This does not require the denigration of the other person, nor in any way acting against them. It is just the discipline of social, moral and spiritual separation.

In this age of celebrity-worship it is important to appreciate how admiration and attraction can break down the barriers of separateness that protect us from spiritual contamination. It is not only our children who are negatively affected by admiring role-models whose values fundamentally conflict with our own. We are all impacted by the values of the people or groups we admire and are attracted to.

However, the opposite is true as well: By setting up role-models who personify the values we admire, we raise our own standards of spiritual aspirations too. It is important that our conversation conveys to our children, who the people are that we truly admire and what behaviors we find most attractive. This educational process is no less crucial than their formal studies in the schools and Yeshivas they attend….and a lot less expensive!

Latest update: October 18, 2014

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