Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bring it on — imaginatively / Matot

Although Leviticus 19:18 counsels us not to bear grudges or seek vengeance in our personal relationships, Torah tells us that just prior to his death,

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

Moses accordingly rallies the troops, chooses 1,000 fighters from each of the twelve tribes, and dispatches them under the priestly authority of Phinehas ben Eleazar.

They took the field against Midian, as Adonai had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian: Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba, the five kings of Midian. They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. (Numbers 31:7-8)

They then seized women and booty, burned the encampments of their enemies, and brought back the spoil to Moses and the waiting Israelite nation. Torah knows this as vengeance with divine imprimatur.

But let’s look a little closer at the details of the story. Recall that,

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.” (Numbers 31:1)

Midianites? Really? The Midianites are the people of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who graciously welcomed Moses into his tent, gave him his daughter Tzipporah in marriage, advised Moses on how to organize the community to better dispense justice, and blessed the people.

And while we’re at it, why kill Balaam? He, too, blessed the people. And anyway, Balaam is not a Midianite; he is a Moabite. What’s he got to do with a war against Midian?

Then there is geography. The Midianites live down in the wilderness of Sinai, not on the eastern border of Eretz Yisrael in the land of Moab. Torah supplies a reason for going to war against the Midianites: the incident at Baal-Peor recounted in parshat Balak. Here, too, there is confusion about whether we’re talking about Midianites or Moabites. Six chapters earlier in the Book of Numbers, we are told:

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. (Numbers 25:1-2)

But when God instructs Moses to slay the men who worshiped idols at Baal-Peor, we find just four verses later:

Just then one of the Israelite notables came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and the Whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Ten of Meeting. (Numbers 25:6)

Biblical historians suggest that these stories constitute the recreated history of an ancient people: there is a basis in fact, but much has been altered and reflects the realities of the time in which it was written, in this case during the reign of King David. Historians further suggest that the story of the antagonism between Israel and Moab may have been rewritten to move Moab out of the spotlight for political expediency: King David was descended from the Moabites through his grandmother Ruth. Identifying the Midianites, rather than the Moabites, as the troublemakers would protect David’s lineage. (As a point of interest, we are probably seeing the same phenomenon in the story of how Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Genesis chapter 37. Do they sell Joseph to Midianites or to Ishmaelites? Depends which verse you read.)

It’s curious that when we read the Torah on the level of pshat, we might well ask how this war of vengeance squares with Torah’s interdiction on seeking revenge. Are there times when revenge is permissible? When we read the passage through the spectacles of a biblical historian, an ancillary question emerges. What is the purpose and value of what appears to be imagined revenge?

If, as the Roman poet, Juvenal, claimed, "Revenge is always the weak pleasure of a little and narrow mind," we all have little and narrow minds. Psychologists have learned much about our oh-so-natural and altogether human proclivity to seek revenge, immortalized not only in the Bible, but in the works of Homer and Shakespeare, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, and countless movies from Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, to Kill Bill, to The Princess Bride. The theme of revenge permeates children’s literature; my favorite is Mathilda by Roald Dahl. There is even a TV series entitled Revenge.

Some years back, Swiss researches designed an experiment in which subjects had reason and opportunity to punish greedy partners in an economic exchange game. Scanning their brains, they discovered that contemplating revenge caused heightened neural activity in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that lights up when cocaine and nicotine are used. The researches concluded that on some level, the old adage is true: revenge is sweet. Actually caring out revenge, however, is far less flavorful and satisfying. In fact, it tastes bitter, exacting a high price in time, physical and emotional energy, and even lives.

It turns out that the emotional catharsis of revenge does not purge negativity from the body but in fact does the opposite. What is more, people inaccurately predict how they will feel after wreaking revenge. The bad feelings do not quickly dissipate, and they do not feel happier; perhaps surprisingly, revenge prolongs their misery. Francis Bacon got it right when he wrote: “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.” The bottom line is that contemplating revenge tastes sweet, but exacting revenge taste bitter.

I’m wondering if this is a case in which the historians’ perspective helps us best extract the wisdom Torah has to offer.  The biblical historian would say that the story of a victorious war of vengeance against the Moabites, together with the overlay of the Midianites, is mostly a fantasy that can be played and replayed with each telling — in a sense it is equivalent to contemplating revenge. In each iteration of the story the people are victorious and avenged, and their need for retribution is quenched without any more than words only they hear. 

There is wisdom here for us. Desiring revenge is assuredly part of human nature, and often our grievances against others are legitimate, but if seeking revenge to punish others is not appropriate, it helps to know that it wouldn’t make us feel better anyway. Conscious and controlled imagining, however, can provide a balm that will help us move past the hurt. In our imaginations, we can be victorious, justice can prevail, and we can let go much more quickly. What do you think?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

No comments:

Post a Comment