The Torah in Parashat Matot tells of Benei Yisrael’s triumphant battle against the nation of Midyan, and the events that transpired upon the soldiers’ return with large amounts of spoils which they had seized from the Midyanites. These included the presentation given to the soldiers by Elazar, the kohen gadol, instructing how to make the Midyanites’ food utensils permissible for use. Different procedures were required for different utensils in order to thoroughly cleanse them of nonkosher food with which they had been used, so that they may then be used by Benei Yisrael. These laws form the basis of what we colloquially call today “kashering” – the process of expunging nonkosher food particles from a utensil so it may be used in the preparation of kosher food.
The Sifrei, as Rashi (31:21) cites, found it significant that these laws were taught to the soldiers by Elazar, and not by Moshe. Surprisingly, the Sifrei explains that Moshe forgot these halakhot, a result of the anger with which he greeted the nation’s generals upon their triumphant return from battle. As we read several verses earlier (31:14), Moshe angrily censured the generals for bringing the Midyanite women which they captured back to Benei Yisrael’s camp. The Torah uses the term “va-yiktzof” in describing Moshe’s reaction, which indicates an especially harsh expression of anger. The Sifrei thus comments (as cited by Rashi), “Lefi she-ba Moshe li-khlal ka’as ba li-khlal ta’ut” – “Since Moshe was angry, he erred.” Meaning, his anger resulted in his forgetting the basic laws of kashering.
What might be the significance of specifically this area of Halakha – cleansing utensils that had been used with nonkosher food – in the context of Moshe’s inappropriately angry response to the generals?
Symbolically, the process of kashering perhaps represents the need to “cleanse” our communities and our nation of “forbidden” elements. Just as we may not use utensils that might have particles of forbidden foodstuff embedded within their walls, similarly, we cannot accept all ideas and behaviors as legitimate. Sometimes we need to take a stand, and a strong stand, opposing doctrines and practices that are at odds with Torah tradition. In the case of the battle against Midyan, this need took the form of denying the inclusion of the women of Midyan, who had earlier lured the men of Benei Yisrael to sin, during the period when Benei Yisrael worshipped the Ba’al Pe’or idol. However, Chazal here teach us that this uncomfortable process must be devoid of anger and rage. People prone to anger should not be the ones assuming the role of “kashering” – of rejecting and opposing that which needs to be rejected and opposed. This role must be undertaken delicately, with composure, humility and dignity. As important as it undoubtedly is to work to “expunge” the “nonkosher” beliefs and behaviors that have made their way into our communities, this must be done without any tinge of anger or hostility, and rather with pure sincerity and out of a genuine desire to help Am Yisrael.