We've all done it--gone "over the top." Nadav and Avihu did it when they offered alien fire on the altar. Pinchas did it when he speared Zimri and Cozbi. Moshe rabbeinu did it when he struck the rock and spoke in anger. And now he does it again.
It's troubling enough that we read of Gd instructing the Israelites to take their vengeance upon the Midianites. They go and kill all the males, and take the women and children captive. Then Moshe rebukes them harshly for having spared the women and children , and orders them to slay all the male children as well as all well who have had carnal relations. (But spare the virgins, apparently. Hmmm. Is this mercy or something more practical?)
Slaying all the Midianite adult males was surely adequate vengeance, but Moshe must have been feeling particularly crotchety that day. (And no surprise either, since Gd has just told Moshe that he was to do this one last battle and then he would be gathered to his kin.) It surely wasn't necessary for Moshe to further insist on the slaying of the male children and non-virginal women. There's no record of Gd saying to Moshe "hey, that wasn't enough vengeance!" It was "over the top" on Moshe's part.
So perhaps it was time for Moshe to be gathered to his kin. Just as Gd did with Pinchas, co-opting his zeal into a very public priesthood where his zealousness could be kept in check, he would now do the same with Moshe. If it wasn't clear before that the time had come to remove Moshe from his lofty pinnacle of power, this latest "over the top" act was proof enough.
Even Gd, it seems, has a tendency to occasionally go "over the top." We can go back to the flood, or perhaps even to the expulsion from Gan Eden of Adam and Chava. The plagues, the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds. Need I go on?
As we are made b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of Gd, then, as I have suggested before, it's no surprise that Gd and Humans should share some of the same intemperate traits. Gd well knows the dangers of going over the top, and is keenly aware of when it's time to keep Moshe from losing control of this trait in himself any more.
Later, in this double-parasha, we read of the instruction to create cities of refuge we those who cause inadvertent or accidental death to another may be safe from the blood vengeance of the deceased's family. Yet another recognition of Gd's part how Gd's own trait to go "over the top" is part of Gd's creation, humanity, as well? After all, think about it. Does it really make sense for the family member of one who is killed to be obligated to pursue and slay the slayer? Yes, I know-- eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life. But these were punishments to be exacted by the community, under a system of laws and justice. Even back then, they were not justification for taking the law into your own hands, for taking your own vengeance. Yet, because of this tendency to go "over the top" in reaction to the killing of a relative (although is any reaction to the death of a loved one really "over the top", I have to ask) we must provide the safe havens for those who accidentally kill to be safe from the crazed relatives of the deceased. (Not so the deliberate murderer, who is to be dealt with, although, once again, it really is the community's responsibility. However, the cities of refuge system does leave a very large loophole allowing the relatives of one who is murdered to go and exact vengeance through the death of the murderer at their own hands.)
Yet humankind continues to go over the top. The crusades. The Inquisition. Nazism. Mutual assured destruction. The My Lai massacre. Tiananmen Square. Seems we haven't learned the lesson yet, which is why it is good that each year we repeat these same parts of the Torah. Maybe someday we'll really listen and understand.
Yes, we've all done it. As Torah clearly shows, our ancestors did it, and so did Gd. So it's something we have to live with? I think not. As with so many of the lessons we learn from Torah, it is another lesson for us to learn to help heal the world and make it complete and ready for the olam haba, the world to come. While it's nice to know that so many before us have had this same tendency, one of these days, we have to finally overcome it once and for all.
Next time you feel yourself about to go "over the top," try holding yourself back. Maybe it will become habit.
And bayom hahu, on that day, when we finally get beyond going "over the top", then we'll really be able to go "over the top" in terms of life on earth, to life in the olam haba. If only...
©2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
Matot--Masey 5762--The Reble's Complaint and Promises, Promises
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