Two portions ago, at the end of Parshat Balak, a staggering and decimating plague swept the Children of Israel as a result of the sins incited and assisted by our formidable foes, the Moavites and Midianites.
Two portions ago, at the end of Parshat Balak, a staggering and decimating plague swept the Children of Israel as a result of the sins incited and assisted by our formidable foes, the Moavites and Midianites. In the same portion, our entire existence was also dangerously threatened by a crafty and powerful gentile sorcerer, Bilam, who was enlisted by the joint forces of Midian and Moav to curse the Jewish people, hoping to render them defenseless prey to their ravishing enemies. Yet, in this week's first Torah portion, Mattot, when Hashem decides that it has come time to avenge the honor of Israel and destroy its enemies, He commands Moses to destroy only the Midianites while allowing the Moavites to escape scot-free. Why, one asks, were the Midianites chosen for destruction while the Moavites, who led the rank intrusion, let go?
To answer this question, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that the Moavites acted purely for self-defense reasons against a looming and potent enemy on their borders, while the Midianites had engaged in a dispute that did not concern them, for they were not threatened by the Jews since they lived far away from the path to the land of Israel. It was for the Midianites' action of baseless hatred that Hashem took His vengeance. The Rosh, a leading 14th century Talmudic commentator and authority, explains that such a hatred and involvement in other people's disputes is especially spiritually dangerous because even when the quarreling parties have come to a settlement, the hatred of the unaffected outsider will retain its vigor since, after all, it was not based on anything to begin with.
This message is especially crucial to our generation for whom baseless hatred is one of our most outstanding faults and challenges. The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 9b) exhorts us that for the unbearable sin of baseless and futile hatred of a fellow Jew, one's wife and children are caused to die, Heaven forbid. Rashi explains that this punishment is measure for measure (midah k'neged midah), for just as one has failed to love others, the ones that love him may be taken away from him. Therefore, we must view this terrible sin of baseless hatred as a heartless murderer and combat it with our most vehement strength.
Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, a great Torah scholar in Europe at the beginning of this century, relates a conversation he had with the Alter of Slabodka, one of the leading Torah educators in Lithuania at the beginning of this century. One day the Alter was talking about the "three weeks", the period of Jewish mourning for the destruction of the Temples in which we are now immersed. In summary, he explained that the reason for the institution of this period of mourning was to awaken us from our rut of sin and spur us to repentance, so that we should be deserving of the rebuilding of the Temple. The first Temple was destroyed due to the Jewish people's involvement in murder, idol worship, and immoral relations, and still the exile lasted only seventy years. The second Temple, on the other hand, despite the Jews involvement in Torah and good deeds, was razed mainly because of the menacing sin of baseless hatred, and alas we still have not been worthy to see it rebuilt.
Beware, the Alter commands, this sinister influence still dances among us, and unfortunately we lack the level of good deeds and Torah that encompassed our forefathers. Honestly, he asks, how many of us, upon seeing a colleague elevated to a position of honor which we thought we deserved, would not seethe at the horrible insult and wonder why our friends did not jump forward to defend our honor? And yet how many of us simply go through the actions and laws of this time period without taking its essential message to eradicate the baseless hatred from our hearts?
How true the words of the Alter ring and tremble in our innermost hearts. We must instill this crucial message in ourselves, repent for our past sins, and learn to practice baseless love, and with the help of Hashem the Temple will be rebuilt speedily in our days.
Ranon Cortell, who hails from Atlanta and is a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, will be attending Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore this fall.
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