SALT - Motzaei Shabbat, July 20, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
This week's SALT shiurim are dedicated in memory of my grandfather
Rav Yehuda Leib Silverberg z"l, whose yahrzeit is
Thursday 22 Tamuz, July 25
            The Torah in Parashat Matot tells of the war waged by Benei Yisrael against Midyan, and the large collection of spoils which the soldiers brought back with them.  God commanded Moshe how the spoils were to be distributed, and after this distribution process was completed, the generals who led the war effort approached Moshe.  They reported to him that they counted all the men under their charge, and found that “lo nifkad mimenu ish” – not a single soldier was missing (31:49).  They then said that they wished to donate the gold jewelry which they had collected during the war, “to atone for our souls before the Lord” (31:50).  Moshe took the gold and placed it inside the Mishkan.
            The question arises as to whether there is any direct connection between the generals’ two statements to Moshe – that no soldiers were killed in battle, and that they wished to donate the gold.  Are these two separate statements, or is the officers’ donation linked to the fact that no soldiers fell during the war?  At first glance, we might assume that this donation was made to give thanks to God for this great miracle – of a successful war without a single casualty.  However, the generals explicitly stated that they brought the donation “to atone for our souls.”  This gesture was made to seek atonement, not to express gratitude.  Perhaps, then, these should be read as separate proclamations, with no direct connection between them.
            This appears to be Seforno’s approach.  He writes (31:50) that the donation was made to atone for the sin of Ba’al Pe’or, when the people of Midyan and Moav conspired to lure Benei Yisrael to forbidden relationships and idolatry.  The generals, who held leadership positions, were expected to have intervened to stop the sinful conduct.  In an effort to atone for this failure in leadership, the generals offered their gold as a donation.  This certainly does not appear to have anything to do with the generals’ first statement to Moshe, that none of the soldiers fell in battle.
            This is also the view of Netziv, in Ha’ameik Davar, where he writes that the generals told Moshe that already earlier, before they counted the troops to see if anyone was missing, they had consecrated the gold jewelry which they seized.
            However, the Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (64a) presents a different, Midrashic reading of these verses, explaining that when the generals reported that no soldiers “were missing” (“lo nifkad”), they meant that nobody went “missing” in a spiritual sense.  Meaning, no soldiers engaged in intimate relationships with the women of Midyan.  This war was waged in response to the tragedy of Ba’al Pe’or, and so the generals reported to Moshe that as part of the efforts to rectify that tragic episode, not a single soldier committed a sinful act during the war.  However, the Gemara explains, the men were not innocent of illicit thoughts, or of looking inappropriately at the women, and for this they were donating the gold they collected in order to atone for these improprieties.
            A much different explanation is given by the Rashbam (mentioned also by Chizkuni), who associates the generals’ donation with the machatzit ha-shekel – the mandatory half-shekel donation which was given whenever a census was taken.  In Sefer Shemot (30:11-16), God commands that when the nation is counted, each member must give the machatzit ha-shekel donation as “ransom for his soul,” to avoid a “plague” that might otherwise befall the nation.  In this vein, the Rashbam explains, the soldiers who were counted after the war made a special donation for atonement, in order to avoid the harsh consequences that God had threatened to bring upon the people if they are counted without making a donation.  They sought to atone not for any particular sin, but rather in a general sense, just as it always required when people are counted.