by Rabbi Avi Billet
There are no words to explain the horrific tragedy that unfolded in Brooklyn last week, only questions.
The positive side of the story is the outpouring of love, concern, and support that a community could exhibit for a child and for his family, in the aftermath of a conclusion noone could anticipate, expect, or face as being the reality.
In light of the story and how it has affected all of is, we can ask a particularly poignant question on a verse in the Torah that seems to go against everything we hold dear.
The war against Midian was a one-time event, pursuant to a very specific nation of moral depravity who had waged a full scale war against the Jewish people, sacrificing their daughters' innocence, along with any moral fabric they may have possessed, to destroy the Israelites from within. Their actions led directly to a plague in which 24,000 Israelites died.
God's instruction was, "Enact revenge against Midian." After killing all the adult males on the battlefield, the soldiers report they've left the women alone, causing Moshe to instruct them thus: "And now, kill every [Midianite] male child and every woman who has lain with a man kill [as well]. The females who have never been with a man can be spared." (Bamidbar 31:17-18)
Could God have truly dictated such a command? Was the Midianite crime so terrible that an all out war to kill even all the male children was necessary?
This is neither the first or last time an entire nation was to be wiped out in the Torah. Amalek is the poster-nation for this concept in the Torah, and wars were waged or declared against them in Shmot 17 and Devarim 25:19, as well as in Shmuel I chapters 15 and 30. Similar rules were enforced in wars waged against the seven nations of the land (Devarim 20:16).
Certainly, God did not spare the children in His destruction of Sodom and in the Flood.
Questioning God's decisions as to how He runs His world is a silly exercise. A God-fearing person recognizes that God may choose who will live and who will die. These are judgment calls He makes on a regular basis. We may not always like it, but that is the way of the world.
But why does He have to put such a possibility into the hands of man? Why did the Israelites need to be the power behind the revenge? Why did God prefer to issue forth this command, rather than enact a plague against Midian to take care of the dirty work, as He did to Egypt? Why did the Israelites need to have the blood on their hands?
Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch argued that the classic rules of engagement did not apply to this irregular war of revenge, a war governed by definition by different rules.
This answer is helpful in a general sense, but it does not answer our question. The halakhic argument of "When one comes to kill you, kill him first" (Brachot 58a), or revenge itself can be justified against the seductive women who brought about the plague. This does not include little boys!
In raising a logical argument Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch also does not answer our question: "We must assume that the national degeneration was rooted primarily in the males, whereas the females – if removed at an early age from impure influences and impressions – were able to attain morality…"
Rabbi Ben Zion Feerer points out the incongruity. If it's all out war, then none of the children should be spared. Why is there a difference between the boys and the girls?
Rabbi Feerer suggests that the fate of the boys is inexorably linked to that of the adult women. Generally speaking, the toll of war is on the men who fight, who, in a sense, are expected not to return. Children grow up, rebuild a nation, and live out the dream their fathers died for.
The Talmud says (Kiddushin 2) that women do not normally go out to war. As their death in battle is not a normal result of war, it is much longer remermbered and carried as a "battle scar" for the rest of a child's days.
In this case, however, since the women's actions instigated the revenge, there was no getting around that they would die in battle. There was therefore a need to rid the nation of the young males, so they would not grow up harboring the hate that would come from having lost their mothers and women in battle. They would have gotten over the deaths of their fathers alone – that is the natural order of warfare. But losing their women would pit them against Israel in a future Hatfield/Mccoy war that serves no purpose to the next generation.
The innocent girls could be spared, on the other hand, because they would not take revenge one day in battle.
It's a sad state of affairs when the actions of the guilty must bring about a punishment to the innocent. But it is reflective of a society that cares more about trying to destroy their enemy than about taking care of their children.
The Israelites needed to carry out the deed so they could afterwards demonstrate and teach that the act of revenge is anything but sweet. This is not something they enjoy doing or want to do (remember, they originally returned from battle having spared all the women!)
With the moral lesson "out there" they could hopefully teach their neighbors to live and let live so that a revenge of this nature might never be necessary again.