Skip to main content

Matot | The Latter Generation and War on Midyan

Rav Nathaniel Helfgot

[The kernel of this shiur came out of a discussion that I had several years ago with my good friend, colleague and Torah pioneer, Rabbi David Silber shlit"a, Director of the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education. -N.H.]




In studying Parashat Hashavua we sometimes do not give the "technical" or seemingly "less important" perakim their proper due. I would like to explore the second half of one such chapter that often is ignored by both students and teachers alike: Bemidbar 31.


Chapter 31 of Sefer Bemidbar recounts, in great detail, the battle that took place between Midian and the Jewish people on the eve of the entry into the land of Israel. This is the last battle that Bnei Yisrael , as an entire people, fight before they prepare themselves for the last directives and speeches of Moshe Rabbeinu. Upon closer examination we notice that not only does the Torah describe the preparations for war and the actual war in great detail, but devotes close to 30 pesukim to the detailed division of the booty, cattle, gold, etc., among the different sections of the people as well as the "tax" on this booty which was given to the Kohanim and Leviim! This detailed presentation stands in stark contrast to what we find in almost all other battles that are described in the Torah. In no other war, whether those of the first generation, yotzei Mitzrayim or those of the second generation, ba'ei haAretz, does the Torah go into anything more than a cursory description of the booty and its division. To paraphrase Malbim's terse comment to the detailed account of the protracted negotiations between Abraham and Efron regarding Me'arat haMachpeila: "What contribution does such a story make to the mission and message of Torah?"




I believe that the resolution to this anomaly is connected to understanding the significance of the war with Midian in the scheme of the history of the second generation. The war with Midian was not a defensive war nor was it a war of conquest such as those with Sichon and Og but rather was the fulfillment of a divine mandate given to the Jewish people after the disastrous encounter with the daughters of Midian and Mo'av at Shitim (Parashat Balak Ch. 25). This encounter led to the worship of Ba'al Peor which brought down the wrath of God against the Jewish people and caused thousands of deaths in a plague. At the outset of Parashat Pinchas (25:16-18) God commands Moshe to afflict Midian because of the damage that they caused in the incident of "Peor" and the responsibility of Kozbi, daughter of the prince of Midian, in seducing Zimri to publicly engage in immoral sexual and pagan behavior. It is only here in our parasha that this command is actually carried out. Given that the war with Midian is inextricably linked to the incident of Ba'al Peor it behooves us to understand the nature of that episode.


It seems clear from both the thematic and literary presentation that the Ba'al Peor episode is a replay of the "CHEIT HAEIGEL-GOLDEN CALF" experience. In a word, it is the Cheit Ha-eigel II, that of the second generation paralleling the one of the first generation! Let us outline some of the major parallels pointing in that direction:


1. In both stories, the Jewish people, (in both narratives "ha'am") involve themselves in idolatry through the vehicle of eating from the pagan sacrifices and bowing:

"...they offered olot and brought shelamim, and the people ("ha'am") sat down to eat and to drink, and they rose up to play... and they worshipped it" (Shemot 32,6-8).

"They called the people ("ha'am") to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods" (Bemidbar 25,2).


2. The Torah presents the idolatrous worship of Ba'al Peor as a direct result of the social interaction with the daughters of Mo'av and the subsequent sexual licentiousness leading to pagan behavior:

"Israel abode in Shitim, and the people began to LIZNOT with the daughters of Mo'av..." (25,1).


In the immediate aftermath of the Cheit Ha-eigel in Shemot 34, this is precisely the same order of events that the Torah forewarns the Jewish people will occur if they enter into covenant with the local inhabitants. In that chapter, which recounts the re-establishment of covenant between God and the Jewish people, God warns the people lest they repeat the same mistakes in the context of their encounter with the nations they will meet in the future. The people are warned not to enter into treaty with those nations in almost the exact same language as that described in the Ba'al Peor incident!:

"Lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land and they will ZANU after their gods, and will sacrifice to their gods; and he will call you and you will eat of his sacrifice. And you take their daughters... VE-ZANU... VE-HIZNU..." (Shemot 34,15-16).


Note carefully the repetition of the verb root "zanah" relating to sexual licentiousness and the seduction theme that will lead your sons to "their Gods," all elements reiterated in the Ba'al Peor incident! Finally it should be noted that Chazal in a wonderful midrashic move inserted the theme of sexual licentiousness into the Cheit Ha-eigel story proper by interpreting the phrase "Vayakumu Letzacheik" (to play - Shemot 32,6) as referring to sexual activity - (see further Seder Eliyahu Rabba Ch. 13 and Rashi to that verse)!


3. In both episodes God's anger is kindled against the people with the specific term "charon af" (Shemot 32:10-13; Bemidbar 25:3), with the threat of utter destruction hanging over the entire people captured by the same verb root - "Kalah," a verb rarely used in the sin narratives of the Torah:

"Leave me... and I will consume them (akhalem)" (Shemot 32,10 and 32,12)

"Pinchas... was zealous for My sake among them, that I did not consume (khiliti) Bnei Yisrael in My jealousy" (Bemidbar 25:11).


4. In both episodes the command comes down for part of the Jewish people to take up arms against their fellow brethren:


"Slay every man his brother, and every man his companion and every man his relative" (Shemot 32:27)

"Slay every man his men, who joined Ba'al Peor" (Bemidbar 25:5)


5. In both stories the charge is lead by major figures of the house of Levi, i.e. Moshe Rabbeinu leading the charge in Shemot and Pinchas taking charge and killing the public offenders. This theme is succinctly noted in an anonymous midrash cited in Torah Shleima(Pinchas #80) " The tribe of Levi stood up and acted at the Cheit Ha-eigel, and here the tribe of Levi acted as well, for once Pinchas saw the act of Zimri he said to himself my forefathers etc." Parenthetically, it is of course interesting to note that in the aftermath of each incident the status of those who eradicated the evil doers was elevated. After the Cheit Ha-eigel the Leviim replaced the first-born for service in the Mishkan while in the aftermath of the Ba'al Peor incident, Pinchas and his line receive the "Brit Kehunat Olam."


6. In both stories in addition to those who are killed at the point of the sword, an entire group of sinners dies as a result of a mageifa - a plague of retribution. .


While not all of the literary parallels cited above find expression in the midrashim of Chazal, the basic thematic connection was clearly noted by them in a number of sources. Bemidbar Rabba (20:23) comments on the various meanings of the forms of the word "Tzemed": "Vayitzamed Yisrael (Bemidbar 25:3)- Like 'Tzmidim' - bracelets on the hands. R. Levi said this decree was more harsh than that of the golden calf, for there it is written that they removed their gold jewelry, while here is says Vayitzamed-like bracelets." A midrash found at the Cairo Geniza (cited in Torah Shleima - Balak Ch. 25-#25) writes: "Vayitzamed - (like a pair of animals - tzemed bakar) the first was at the sin of the Golden Calf and the second was here." And even the famous mpartcited by Rashi describing the contrast between Moshe's activism at the Cheit Ha-eigel and his seeming hesitancy and lack of leadership in stopping the Avoda Zara, paving the way for Pinchas to take the initiative, points to the association of the two stories.


The exact purpose of these comparisons is not clearly delineated in the text of the Torah nor by Chazal and one can conjecture as to what the comparisons are really there to teach us. On one level the Torah may simply be trying to emphasize the notion that the second generation is truly the heir to the mission of the first generation and confronts , mutatis mutandis, similar challenges on the way to its entry into the land of Israel. Going one step further, this comparison may lead us to truly see the contrasts as well - the second generation does go beyond its challenges and does end up entering the land. In that vein, one might raise the possibility that the Torah points out a glaring difference. Here the initiative does not come from Moshe, from outside the people, but rather from someone organically springing up from the people, i.e. Pinchas, who instinctively reacts and saves the day. In this fashion the Torah may be highlighting the shift from the generation that left Egypt, who could not take full responsibility, to the new generation who inherits the land and is able on some level to deal internally with its challenges and crises. Furthermore, in a pointed reversal from the Cheit Ha-eigel incident proper, in which Aharon did not exhibit the proper leadership and was held accountable by Moshe and God; here Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon, Aharon's direct descendent, steps up to lead the way and bring the plague to an end.




Be that as it may, the association with the Cheit Ha-eigel episode seems to be clearly and boldly emphasized. Given that association, we can now turn our attention back to the detailed description of the division of the booty. The only other place in the Torah where we a similar detailed description of gold, silver, and materials brought to the Kohanim and Leviim with the amounts and types of goods presented in minute detail is of course the story that immediately follows the Eigel episode: the building of the Mishkan by the Jewish people! In the aftermath of the Cheit Ha-eigel episode the Jewish people were now able, in the simple reading of the text as Ramban understands it, to return to the main goal that had been interrupted by the breaking of the covenant: the building of the Mishkan. (Acc. to Rashi and others of course the Mishkan was only commanded to be built in the aftermath of the Eigel) It is in those chapters, and those at the end of the Sefer Shemot where we find a detailed description of all the gold and wood etc. that was brought to the Mishkan for the melekhet Hashem. The only other place in the Torah where we have anything parallel such a detailed accounting of cattle and human beings and gold is in our chapter here in Matot. This parallel serves to reinforce the tight connection to the Cheit Ha-eigel theme that the Torah wants to convey. In short, if the confrontation with Midian was in effect the Cheit Ha-eigel of the second generation, then the aftermath of that war, division of the booty and the setting aside of the tax and the giving of the Korban by the leadership to the Mishkan is the Melekhet Hamishkan experience of that generation. A quick look at the outline of our chapter and the language the Torah chooses to use clearly indicates the attempt to connect us back to the Mishkan passage:


1. Bemidbar 31: 25-31 - Moshe and Elazar are instructed to count the booty of cattle and people and divide between those who fought on the front lines and those who remained at home. After that they are commanded to take 1/500 of the warriors' booty and 1/50 of the booty of those who remained at the back, with the former going to the Kohanim as "Terumat Hashem"(pasuk 29) while the latter shall go to the Leviim-"Shomrei Mishmeret Hamishkan" (pasuk 30) Moshe and Elazar do their duty "Ka'asher Tziva Hashem et Moshe" (Pasuk 31)


2. 31:32-41: The count is taken with a detailed accounting of each detail presented and the first section of booty is divided and the tax taken and brought to Elazar the Kohen "Ka'asher Tziva Hashem Et Moshe" (Pasuk 41)


3. 42-47: The second division of booty is prepared and counted with the tax brought by Moshe to the Leviim "Shomrei Mishmeret Mishkan Hashem" and this done "Ka'asher Tziva Hashem Et Moshe" (Pasuk 47)


4. 48-52: After this entire process is completed the leadership of the army approaches Moshe informing him that they have engaged in a census "Avadekha Nassu et Rosh Anshei Hamilchama" and they had found that miraculously no one had been killed in the war and thus they come now to offer a "Korban" (pasuk 50) consisting of the gold jewelry that they had taken as booty for the purpose "lekhaper al nafshoteinu lifnei Hashem" (pasuk 50). Moshe and Elazar take this donation termed "Zehav Hateruma" (Pasuk 52), and bring it to the Ohel Mo'ed as a remembrance before God.


As emerges from this overview, the parallels to the Mishkan narrative are striking.


a) The tax brought by the people is termed "teruma" echoing of course one of the key terms permeating the entire building of the Mishkan narratives starting with the first verses: "Veyikchu li TERUMA...tikchu et TERUMATI" (Shemot 25:2) and is even more evident in the execution of the command in Vayakhel - "Kechu Mei'itkhem TERUMAT HASHEM... yavi'u TERUMAT HASHEM" ... heivi'u et TERUMAT HASHEM" the exact term used here in our parsha.

b) Moreover at the end of each mini-unit in our section the Torah emphasizes that this was all done "Ka'asher Tzeva Hashem et Moshe" echoing the other story in the Torah where this phrase is repeated close to 20 separate times in reflecting the punctilious fulfillment of God's command: the building of the Mishkan and the preparation of the priestly vestments in Vayakhel-Pekudei (See Shemot 36:29; 39:1,5,7,21,26,29,31,32,42,43; 40:16,19,22,23,25,27,29,32).


c) The tax involved every segment of the populace, both the professional warriors as well as the average Jew who did not go out to battle. This is similar to the collection and building of the Mishkan which involved every segment of the population from the professional artisans and craftsman to each part of the Am who contributed something to the Mishkan Hashem. Continuing further it is striking to note that the theme of counting (NaSA) and expiation (KPR) is present in both stories with parallel language. After the command to build the Mishkan the Torah instructs Moshe "When you count each man (TISA ET ROSH... LIFKUDEIHEM), they shall give a soul-ransom (KOFER nafsho) to God... to atone (LIKHAPER) for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money (kesef haKIPPURIM) from the Jews and give it unto the service of Ohel Mo'ed; and it shall be a memorial to the Jews before God, to make atonement (LIKHAPER) for your souls" (Shemot 30:12-16), which was understood by the tradition to refer to monies that were then used for the building of parts of the Mishkan and the upkeep of the daily service. In a startling fashion, the concluding part of our section contains a parallel story in which strikingly similar language is employed: "They said to Moshe: Your servants have counted each man (NASU ET ROSH) of war in our charge, and not one is missing (NIFKAD). We have brought an offering... to atone for our souls (LIKHAPER AL NAFSHOTEINU) before God.... Moshe and Elazar took the gold... a memorial to the Jews before God" (Bemidbar 31:48-54). The terms employed are identical with a census taken place and subsequently gold being brought to the Ohel Mo'ed to bring expiation and as remembrance for the Jewish people before God! It is interesting to note that a number of sources in Chazal state that the money collected here was used for the exact same purpose as the money collected in the Ki-Tisah section, see for example Lekach Tov: "Lifnei Hashem-It says here Lifnei Hashem and it says it before (citing the source in Ki Tisah)Lifnei Hashem, just as in Ki Tisah tmoney wto the Terumat Halishka so too here it went to the Terumat Halishka" (cited in Torah Shleima # 136).


d) Finally this last section clearly echoes another element of the Mishkan narrative and that is of course the special KORBAN (Bemidbar 7:3,10) of the princes in Parashat Naso. In that episode too at the VERY END of the entire process, after the regular collection for the Mishkan is completed members of the leadership come before Moshe and offer to deliver a special KORBAN for the dedication of the Mishkan with a detailed accounting of the offering given(I here refer to the beginning of Chapter 7 which deals with the general Korban of the Nesi'im which consists of certain animals used for the transport of the Mishkan etc. The second part of the chapter then moves on to the individual Korbanot of the princes which involved the dedication of the alter). So too here at the very end of the regular process of collecting the booty and the taxes for the Mishkan , members of the leadership of the army decide to bring their own special offering, their special KORBAN (Bemidbar 31:50)! All these parallels together drive home even further the connection that the Torah wants us to see as we carefully study the history and challenges of the second generation on their trek into the promised land.



Further Study:

1. We normally understand the connection between the donation to the mishkan and cheit ha-eigel based on the GOLD used in both. In the case of Midian, that common factor is absent. What then is the real connection between the two sins (eigel and bnot Mo'av) and the dedication of gold and silver to the mishkan?


2. Based on the idea of the shiur, what is the significance of the story of the 2 1/2 tribes, which immediately follows the Midian war?


3. The army that fought Midian consisted of 12,000 men (1000 from 12 tribes) "chalutzei tzava." The 2 1/2 tribes agree to be "chalutzim." What is the significance of this term?










To receive the parsha shiur every week, write to:

With the message:

 [email protected]

Subscribe yhe-parsha




This shiur is provided courtesy of the Virtual Beit Midrash, the premier source of online courses on Torah and Judaism - 14 different courses on all levels, for all backgrounds.

Make Jewish learning part of your week on a regular basis - enroll in the
Virtual Beit Midrash



(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion2002 All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion

Yeshivat Har Etzion
Alon Shvut, Israel, 90433
[email protected]



This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!